Donna Elder and her colleagues at the University of Indiana spent three years eavesdropping on the lunch-table chatter of middle school students, and they came away with something other than indigestion and a ringing headache. They produced, instead, a ringing endorsement of adolescent gossip.
“I think there’s a value judgment people put on gossip, that it’s always negative,” explains Eder, an associate professor of sociology, who with graduate student Janet Enke took great pain to explore the meaning behind small talk. Eder and Enke soon found out that teen gossip serves a positive purpose, that of establishing and enforcing a set of hared values and social mores.
Adolescent gossipmongers talk about each other incessantly, says Eder, and in so doing they establish an oral tradition of mutually acceptable appearance and behavior. Girls tend to focus on fashion and relationships, she says, and boys keep tabs on each other’s athletic competence—but the one thing they have in common is the urge to exchange information and make judgments about each other. Though some of those adolescent judgments often are catty, or even outright cruel, Eder believes the need to set and recognize shared beliefs is essential.
“I wasn’t always happy about the values I saw,’' says Eder, whose study, conducted between 1980-81 and 198384, focused on 11 different groups of students at a Midwestern middle school. “Girls were too concerned about attractiveness, and boys overvalued achievement. On the other hand, they have to have some clarity in their lives. There’s a lot of confusion in that period. If I have a problem with some of their values, it’s that they tend to reflect the values of the culture at large.’'
The project began as an attempt to study peer-group influence among teens. “We were interested in identifying the content of their culture and the activities they used to establish that content,’' says Eder. “We didn’t go in just to look at gossip, but it was just so salient. We thought, if it’s important to them, let’s try and understand it.’'
Despite the sometimes convoluted and seemingly trivial nature of some of the discussions (“Well, Lisa said Bryna said to tell Alice that I said.’'), it soon became apparent to the researchers that teen gossip is not just idle chatter.
“One thing you gain when you study these kids is that you start to see the world from their view,’' says Eder. “Gossip is how they discuss what’s important to them. It can often be expressed with heavy emotion. It’s not usually a neutral discussion.’'
A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as Busybodies Benefit From Trading Scuttlebutt