Skip to main content

The Weekly Challenge is a column that tackles self-improvement seven days at a time.

At the peak of the scandal, Gawker published a satirical piece titled "The Petraeus Affair Explained As High School Gossip," a nod to how ridiculously salacious the whole thing had become.

Of course, there are people who will say that the story captured our attention because it was about international security and/or the abuse of power. The truth, however, is that we wouldn't have cared so much had Petraeus been sharing classified documents with his cousin. The events made for juicy, grade-A gossip – in many ways no different than that story you just heard about how your co-worker moonlights at a strip club or that old chestnut about Richard Gere and the gerbil.

Gossip is everywhere. Whether speculating about when a friend will get pregnant or about Lance Armstrong's drug habits, most of us take part. I consider myself a frequent offender, which is why I happily tuned in to a recent CBC documentary called The Real Dirt on Gossip.

Gossip, according to the academics who weighed in, helps us to distinguish friend from foe. It strengthens communities and even acts as a form of social policing, since people tend to avoid behaving in ways that might make them a hot topic.

Going on the record

According to experts, about two-thirds of what we talk about in everyday conversation is gossip. This number sounded high. But then I started to track my conversations: Who did (and didn't) get invited to a friend's Christmas party, whether another friend is going to have a third kid, why Justin Bieber was wearing harem pants at the American Music Awards … and so on. Since being a good gabber involves discretion, I can't go into more detail, but suffice it to say that my own gossip fraction was more like seven-eighths.

Was all of this scuttlebutting good for me though? It wasn't helping me uncover foes and, for better or worse, I'm not in the habit of altering my behaviour for fear of being bad-mouthed (if I was, I probably would never dance in public). I did, however, take note of the bonding benefit – if there is anything better than a gossipy brunch with your BFF, I'm not aware of it. Maybe you're the type of person who chats about sports or sustainable farming with your nearest and dearest, but for me, gossiping and intimacy between friends are inextricably linked – my closest friends today are the same people with whom I once spent hours discussing what everyone wore to the semi-formal. I can't overstate how much happiness and support I have gotten from these relationships. Score one for motor mouths.

Star gazing: the ultimate form of social anthropology

Celebrity gossip is a bit of a different beast. Since I blog about the goings on of TomKat, Brangelina et al for work, knowing the names of all of Posh Spice's children is part of my job. It is also a passion and has been since Julia Roberts left Kiefer Sutherland at the altar to run off with Jason Patric. Since then, our cultural obsession with celebs has crescendoed. We tend to see this as a bad thing, but gossiping about Jennifer Aniston's fertility issues isn't necessarily throwaway.

During her recent TED Talk, Elaine Lui of the Lainey Gossip website argued that the way we talk about celebrities speaks to the values of a society in general. The amount of attention paid to Kristen Stewart this summer, for instance, wasn't just about a 22-year-old who made out with someone other than her boyfriend. It was about Scarlet Letter attitudes, gender biases and the expectation that finding true love is a woman's real life's work. The gay rumours following John Travolta and Tom Cruise speak to other prejudices. "Is this really about John Travolta? Or is about us, and our definition of masculinity as it relates to sexual orientation?" Lui asked her TED Talk audience. She makes a good point.

A couple of times over my week of unbridled blabber I noticed feeling guilty after I said something particularly mean. Being flippantly unkind is different from gossiping, and it's something I'd like to curb if not cut out altogether. The idea of living by the old, "If you don't have anything nice to say …" mantra sounds like cruel and unusual punishment, but given that this type of chatter says more about the gossiper than the gossipee, it's probably best to practise some level of restraint.

Next challenge: We are programmed to think that efficiency comes through multitasking. But what happens when you devote all your attention to one task. Don't watch TV and work at the same time. Don't check e-mails over lunch. Does your productivity dip or skyrocket? Let us know at