Julia Hobsbawm is chief executive of the media monitoring and analysis firm, Editorial Intelligence.

Still we air-kiss and whisper behind the fan

My strongest memory of secondary school is sensory: there is the feeling, so strong it is as palpable as touch, of the bitchiness and gossiping which pervaded every day of every year that I was there. The odd thing is that far from hating my school, I grew to love it and adapted to a world in which it was a given that as soon as my back was turned someone might talk about me behind it.

Bitching is in fact not just ubiquitous in schools or the realm of adolescence. Culturally I would say that the British are predisposed to bitch just about as much as we are to queue, to be stoic in the face of true disaster, and to love odd and mainstream sports alike (does anyone remember the national obsession with curling?). So is the Bulldog in us actually a plain old Bully? Bullying is certainly related to bitchiness or simple nastiness (think Alice Mahon MP telling her version of having an angry finger jabbed at her by Alastair Campbell for not toeing the party line) but it is different in one critical respect: bullying is done to someone's face, whereas the point about bitching is that it must be done in their absence, to a third party.

This is something bitching has in common with its emotional neighbour, gossip (who is, let us say, the sister of rumour). Gossip is intended to convey news of some kind, whereas bitching is pure comment. But as we know in these "feral" times, they overlap.

Bitchiness masquerades as something playful and implicitly harmless, whilst of course it relies on having a sting. It is the modern equivalent of whispering behind fans. The newspaper bitches in an apparently "impartial" way whilst the internet makes no such claim. The weekly online celebrity gossip website Popbitch has more readers than the Independent. Back in print journalism, every national newspaper has a column of gossip alongside those on politics, life, economics, health, art. Here is Peter Preston in a newspaper column in the Guardian recently: "The most familiar current charge against media coverage speaks only of 'dumbing down', as though Jordan and Peter Andre had driven Jordan and the West Bank to the peripheries of concern. Well, maybe... But the real difference isn' dumbness: it is cruelty." In a declining newspaper market, sales of gossip magazines – complete with photos of celebrity cellulite taken by a long lens – are on the up: 3 million per week in the UK and rising.

So not only is bitching fairly compulsive, in some senses it is culturally compulsory. Even if you could imagine saying aloud what you just whispered behind your fan, it would dispel the pleasure of the endless elaboration that is essential when bitching. (My husband says that women are better at bitching than men because we say the same things ten times over when they keep communication to a minimum.) But the repetition is productive; it picks up and amplifies the comments, hence, perhaps the phrase "rumour mill".

It may actually be quite healthy to vent and be vitriolic whilst protecting the object of your bile from being hurt. But it may also illustrate how fragile our collective psyche is, that we cannot bear genuine criticism, and instead turn criticism into cruel hyperbole, into something which really would cause offence if repeated directly.

In fact, bitchiness could really be a kind of conflict avoidance (as opposed to conflict resolution). We may be afraid to hurt people's feelings but we may also be afraid to confront, to tell the truth about what we think in case it makes us look bad ourselves.

Because being liked and admired is still socially prized above all else. Only politicians talk about the "tough decisions" which may make them unpopular – and even they do their utmost to be as loved as they can these days.

Many of the people I know to have bitched about me – and I about them – are people I still see in social and professional circles. Some are close friends whilst others are people I'm afraid I insincerely "mwah mwah" to – as they do to me, in something of a rush as we long to race off and relay what we really feel: to someone else.

How radical would it be to convey the truth about your feelings to others – but to do it kindly? That just might put paid to the endless TV show formats which are predicated on bitchiness and an exploitation of weakness, so a moratorium on indirectness, no matter how brief, could be very welcome. Go on, have a go. Tell them to stop being so nasty or wrong-headed or silly. Tell them directly. Just don't tell them I said so.



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