As Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, said, “If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”
We are an exquisitely social species. When we coordinated a hunt to bring down some huge animal with sticks and rocks, when, as mothers with helpless infants, we worked out a group babysitting/gathering schedule, we honed our social abilities, including being astute judges of each other. Gossiping may have been the reason why we developed language.
Primatologists devote their lives to mapping the complex web of social interactions our closest relatives weave, but chimpanzees and bonobos can’t hold a candle to what we can do. We can live in huge groups – in cities, in countries – without (usually) killing each other. We develop complex systems of trade and trust.
Gossip has a bad reputation because it can be used maliciously to keep people in line, to punish and compete. Exhibit A: teenaged girls.
That isn’t what I’m talking about.
I have always talked to my kids, from a young age, about the people around them, including adults. (“You’re right; your teacher IS being a jerk.”) First, to pretend otherwise would be really crazy-making for the child. Second, being a good judge of character (i.e., recognizing when someone is being an ass) is a useful skill. Young humans have to learn to deal with such asses and the first, and most important, step in that process is recognizing what you’re dealing with.
Don’t talk about people?
How else are we going to figure them out?