The patriarchal authoritarians running America in The Handmaid’s Tale use a classic dehumanizing technique for subjugating citizens: restricting communication. As a result, the women are forced to converse in secret whispers, snatching bits of information wherever they can get it. A denigrating term for this sort of behavior is gossip, but some scientists would warn against judging it too harshly.
If the story of human evolution is any indication, gossip may be what will save their society.
Caution: Mild spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale ahead.
In the series, Offred is isolated and alone until her seemingly pious walking partner, Ofglen, sheds her saintly facade. After that, Ofglen spills the beans about everything — the resistance, the Commander’s reputation, and the Eye in the Waterford house — which in turn motivates Offred to resist. Ultimately, what sharing secrets really represents is building trust. Doing so, scientists have suggested, was necessary for early humans to advance civilization.
Oxford University evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, Ph.D., has argued that gossip is what makes us human. Dunbar is famous for identifying 150 as the Dunbar number — the maximum number of people we can cognitively handle having “casual friendships” with. And one of the most important ways that early humans decided who they could be friends with, he argues, was by gossiping.
As Dunbar puts it in his book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, gossiping serves the same purpose as grooming — that is, it’s an activity that allows individuals to quickly assess whether they could trust each other and add them to their network. Scientists have argued that, at the time, obtaining this information through regular interactions would not only have been slow but also potentially dangerous. Furthermore, by watching other people gossip (or groom), individuals can gather second-hand information about who is trustworthy. For the Handmaids, public events like birth ceremonies or Salvagings are rare opportunities to scope out potential confidantes.
Bringing together bunches of people who trust each other was integral for human civilization, Dunbar says. Humans aren’t particularly well-equipped to fight off animal predators, but early humans soon learned that there was strength in numbers, if those who made up their ranks could be convinced to work together. From this theory stems the idea that gossip eventually helped humans form 150-person building blocks of society, and villages, towns, cities, and empires followed suit.
On the flip side of gossip is its ability to tell individuals who to exclude from their networks, which we see when Nick warns Offred to stay away from Ofglen, whose reputation for being particularly chatty precedes her. In 2012, psychologists argued in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that gossip is protective when it warns people of others that may harm them. “We’re not saying all gossip is virtuous, but it does serve a purpose from the perspective of the group”, Matthew Feinberg, a postdoctoral student at Stanford University and a co-author of that study, said in an interview with the New York Times. Relatedly, another study published in Science in 2011 showed that people literally look differently at people they hear negative gossip about — that is, we are hardwired to pay special attention to a person who we’ve heard bad things about.
Taken together, the science of gossip tells us that talking behind each others’ backs isn’t just normal but necessary for society to function. The Handmaid’s Tale acknowledges this by emphasizing how crucial the secret moments between women are to their survival. Doing so, arguably, also serves an important cultural purpose: The word gossip has historically been gendered as female and saddled with negative connotations, but by using it to aid in their survival of a brutal regime, Ofglen, Offred, and the rest of the Handmaids succeed in their effort to take it back.