Among the English, gossip about one’s own private doings is reserved for intimates; gossip about the private lives of friends and family is shared with a slightly wider social circle; gossip about the personal affairs of acquaintances, colleagues and neighbours with a larger group; and gossip about the intimate details of public figures’ or celebrities’ lives with almost anyone. This is the distance rule. The more ‘distant’ from you the subject of gossip, the wider the circle of people with whom you may gossip about that person.

The distance rule allows gossip to perform its vital social functions – social bonding; clarification of position and status; assessment and management of reputations; transmission of social skills, norms and values – without undue invasion of privacy. More importantly, it also allows nosey-parker anthropologists to formulate their prying questions in such a roundabout manner as to bypass the privacy rules.

If, for example, you want to find out about an English person’s attitudes and feelings on a sensitive subject, such as, say, marriage, you do not ask about his or her own marriage – you talk about someone else’s marriage, preferably that of a remote public figure not personally known to either of you. When you are better acquainted with the person, you can discuss the domestic difficulties of a colleague or neighbour, or perhaps even a friend or relative. (If you do not happen to have colleagues or relatives with suitably dysfunctional marriages, you can always invent these people.)