Why Gossip is a Superpower of Norm Enforcement


Breaking social norms comes with consequences. But punishments vary depending on where you live

Why Gossip is a Superpower of Norm Enforcement

Social norms keep communities and organizations humming along. These unspoken rules are easy to overlook. But when you violate a norm—talk when a teammate is giving a presentation, for example, or sit next to a stranger in a half-empty theatre—you’ll either have some explaining to do or suffer some serious reputational damage. 

Just as there are norms about acceptable behaviour, there are norms about norm enforcement. When do we react to a transgression? When do we pretend not to notice? And if we react, what’s a suitable response? Researchers have identified three common ways violators are sanctioned: freezing them out via social ostracism; gossiping about their inappropriate behaviour; and verbally or physically confronting them. 

A recent study looked at how people in various countries view norm violators and the measures they prefer to keep violators in line.

How was the study designed?

Study participants in 57 countries were presented with 10 scenarios covering various types of norm violations. Scenarios included a person listening to music on headphones while attending a funeral and someone responding to a verbal insult with physical confrontation. Participants were asked to rate the appropriateness of four different responses to these norm violations.

What did the study find?

  • Across countries, there was a negative relation between appropriateness ratings of norm violations and appropriateness ratings of sanctions. Participants considered it more appropriate to use gossip, social ostracism and confrontation the more inappropriate the triggering behaviour was perceived to be.

  • The appropriateness rating of gossip was higher in countries that scored higher on individualism, autonomy values, gender equality, median income and emancipative moral judgments (relating to homosexuality, divorce, abortion and suicide). The use of confrontation and social ostracism was viewed as less appropriate in prosperous countries with more emancipative values.

  • Appropriateness ratings of physical confrontation and social ostracism were negatively correlated with individualism. This suggests that individualistic values give people more leeway to violate norms without getting punished. 

What do I need to know? 

In ever-more culturally diverse organizations and cities, navigating social norms can be fraught with misunderstanding. This globe-spanning study clears away some of the confusion. It shows there are universal views of common types of norm violations and potential ways to punish violators. If you fall asleep in a restaurant or listen to music with headphones on during a funeral, you’ll likely get the stink eye—or a stern dressing down—whether you’re in Mumbai or Montreal. 

But more intriguing are the differences across countries. The study’s findings suggest that responses to norm violators may shift as living standards rise. In particular, in more affluent countries, gossip is preferable to the more punitive sanctions of social ostracism and verbal or physical confrontation.

Why is gossip considered a better “punishment” in richer societies? The researchers suggest it may be due to social network structures not being as entwined and overlapping as they are in collectivist cultures found in Asia, Central America, South America and Africa. As a result, people are less likely to worry that the norm violator is close to the person with whom they’re gossiping. 

It may also be that collectivist or tight cultures value group harmony above virtually everything else, motivating their citizens to confront those who stray from group norms. In individualistic societies, expressing one’s uniqueness and acting according to one’s own volition are idealized. As a result, individuals have more leeway to violate norms and to be merely the subject of gossip.

Gossip certainly has its place in policing a norm, particularly if you’re more interested in sending a message to your in-group than to the norm offender. With direct confrontation or ostracism, the offender is given a clear message that his behaviour is a no-no. With gossip, you’re making clear to your in-group that such behaviour is unacceptable; it may exact reputational damage on the violator but indirectly. “For this reason, people may think of both confrontation and social ostracism as ‘punishment’ while viewing gossip in a different way,” the research paper points out, “even though they are all expressions of disapproval and even though gossip may be as effective in sustaining norms.”

So if you feel guilty each time you gossip about a colleague, cut yourself some slack. True, you may be undermining team trust but you may also be clarifying group norms and putting bullies in their place. If you’re like the average person, only around 15 per cent of your gossip is actually nasty; three quarters is innocent middle-of-the-road nattering. The message: Be honest about your motivations.

Study TitlePerceptions of the appropriate response to norm violation in 57 societies

Authors: Kimmo Eriksson (Stockholm University), Pontus Strimling (Institute for Futures Studies, Michele Gelfand (University of Maryland) and 100 other global researchers including Xia Fang (York University), Zhuo Li (Western University) and Jana Raver (Smith School of Business) in Canada.

PublishedNature Communications