Joseph Epstein: Gossip Guy

Former American Scholar editor Joseph Epstein, author of Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), dishes about rumor-mongering and why it’s not all bad.

July 18, 2012

How has gossip evolved with the invention of the Internet?

Gossip began as a private matter: neighbors and friends talking about one another. With the advent of the printing press and the spread of newspapers, it went, so to say, public, featuring the rich and the famous. When the Internet came into being, private individuals found themselves being gossiped about in the public realm of cyberspace, not least through social media.

You mention in your book a couple of ways to characterize gossip.

The most fundamental definition of gossip is two or more people talking about a third person who is not in the room and saying something about him that he definitely would not want known. Another definition I like is from gossip columnist Earl Wilson, “hearing something you like about someone you don’t like.”

Real estate professionals obviously shouldn’t gossip about their clients, properties for sale, or each other.  But in studying gossip, have you found any surefire ways to get rid of rumors that affect the workplace?

 The only way to quash rumors that I know is to confront them with facts. The real estate industry is potentially rife with gossip. Because it is so central to life, it stirs curiosity. Who is buying this house? What kind of people? At what price? A purchase can incur envy. Why should these new occupants live in a better, more expensive, house than mine? The best and perhaps the only ­weapon real estate agents have to quell such gossip is a well-mannered reticence, which would entail being agreeable while giving away as little curiosity-satisfying information as possible. 

Real estate is built on facts, figures, and comparables. Yet, people often buy a house based on more than just mortar, stone, and price. Gossip is often what moves along the plot in literature; how do you generate buzz about a place in a constructive way?

Perhaps the best way to create buzz is to have a genuine bargain to offer, or a house under contract that has hidden features that make it an especially good deal for any new owner. Spreading the word to neighbors and other possibly interested parties about what you have to offer is the most straightforward and sensible approach—old-fashioned but, I would think, highly effective.

You came up with four people you dub the “Great Gossips of the Western World”: Louis de Rouvroy (the Duc de Saint-Simon), Walter Winchell, Barbara Walters, and Tina Brown. These people have been known to shape public opinion and provide news. Is there a lesson to be learned from them?

With the exception of the Duc de Saint-Simon, whose gossip was published after he died, the lesson from the other three careers is that one can never underestimate the taste for “with-it-ness” and the prurience of the American public.

Do Americans have a particular gossip style?

We have had gossip stylists, such as Walter Winchell, but for the most part, the reigning style of American gossip is straightforward. English gossip is—or at least used to be—subtler, livelier, and certainly more wicked. 

Kristin Kloberdanz, a California-based freelance writer, contributes to TIME Magazine and other publications.