Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can never hurt you. Unless you're a woman.
A new study shows women are more afraid of malicious gossip than men are; while many men will back down when faced with the threat of physical violence, women are more worried about being stabbed in the back by cruel rumors.
"I call it informational warfare," says lead author Nicole Hess, an anthropologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "Men are more inclined to compete for resources through physical violence, while women compete by waging gossip."
Hess believes humans are primed by evolutionary history to fight for what they want. But how they do battle depends on their gender.
Our male ancestors fought physical battles against other tribes to gain access to rich hunting grounds or fertile females, Hess says.
But because women lacked the physical strength of men, they had to find other ways to win, she says. Battling for the survival of their children, females formed their own coalitions to secure scarce resources like food and inheritances for their offspring. These coalitions were based not on the threat of physical prowess but on the spread of rumours, she says.
"Women are more likely to get the resources they need if they have good reputations," Hess explains. "And women will use gossip to destroy their competitors to get those scarce resources."
While Hess' idea springs from the survival-of-the-fittest theory of evolution, it has modern parallels. For example, if two women are competing for the same man, they may spread malicious rumors about each other.
"One woman may say things about the other like, 'She sleeps around,' as a way of discrediting the competition," Hess says.
To test her theory that men and women perceive gossip differently, Hess asked male and female college students to imagine they had discovered someone cheating in a competition. The students were then told the cheater had friends who would either beat them up or bad-mouth them. Men backed down when faced with the threat of physical violence, but were indifferent to verbal backlash. Women didn't care about bodily harm; they were more worried someone might dish the dirt on them.
"Gossip isn't trivial or unimportant," says Hess, who presented her findings recently at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society conference in London. "It (gossip) has very negative consequences, and often it's very difficult to refute. Women tend to use it in competition against other women. It matters a lot more to women because their reputations are so much more susceptible to it."
Psychologist Nicki Crick has already tested the power of gossip. She and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota have found that while boys' aggression is physical, girls' is psychological - they talk about other girls behind their backs. Crick calls this relational aggression, and says girls who are targeted in this way suffer from depression, anxiety and emotional distress.
But Eric Foster, a social psychology graduate student at Temple University, says gossip has its lighter side. The tabloid gossip rags entertain us. The grapevine at work informs us, and the bull sessions around the water cooler create friendships.
"Architects design offices with spaces just so people can dish the dirt," says Foster.
What to do
Hess says having friends who stick up for you when rumours fly is important. Also, don't isolate yourself at work. Build a coalition of friends that will support you when the going gets tough. But screen those friends carefully.
"Unless you have a close, self-disclosing relationship with the woman, it's not a good idea to spill your guts," Hess says.