Gossip: The Good and the Bad

Gossip always hurts someone, and most of the time it’s the one doing the talking. ~Unknown

Gossip. When we hear the word, our natural tendency is to immediately lean in and perk up. We don’t want to be the focus of it, but we certainly don’t mind being privy to a juicy bit of good gossip either.

But why? Why do people take such pleasure in passing on personal information about another person? And what’s the cost of being the bearer of sordid news? Is there a way to nip a gossip in their proverbial bud, so that you or those you care for don’t become their next headline?

Gossip, in its most popular definition, consists of passing along information that is private in nature, typically founded on falsehoods, and sprinkled with a dash of judgment just for good measure. A gossip is that person who seeks out these golden nuggets of shame, and drops them mercilessly into any ear available.

It is interesting to note that both men and women are guilty of gossip equally, but what they gossip about differs greatly, and has much to do with topics related to evolutionary standing. Thus men gossip about another fellow’s successes or failures.

“Bob got a promotion and a new car.”
“Biff failed to slay the dinosaur and bring home dinner.”

Women, on the other hand, whose safety and survival relied on remaining in high esteem with the group, gossip about moral character and current social alignments.

“Betty doesn’t keep a clean house.”
“Janna wasn’t invited to Reba’s cave-drawing club.“

Why We Gossip:
The bad news is there actually are several personal and immediate benefits from participating in the “telephone” game. (Unfortunately, yes, this is true.)

First, the fact is that it feels good to gossip. We know that gossiping is wrong, and that’s exactly why we engage. We are being naughty and misbehaving, and that thrill of wrongdoing offers a fun physical sensation.

Gossip is also a great diversion from the mundane; nothing revs a stalled conversation like some good old fashion mudslinging. If you’ve run out of things to talk about, then simply lob up a salacious “You didn’t hear it from me, but …” to grab the attention of even the most pious among us.

When you share something negative about someone else it isn’t a very nice thing to do, and thus in order to commit the transgression, you have to trust that the person you are gossiping with won’t squeal on you. Likewise, the receiver of gossip understands the risk involved, and therefore is pleased that the gossiper “trusts” them enough to share. The two culprits actually bond over their mutual involvement in the act of betrayal.

If you want to pull Laura into your good graces, tell her “Sally is now dating Brenda’s old boyfriend.” Cement your friendship by assuring her “nobody else knows” and that Sally would “be mortified” if she found out you’d shared.

When we suggest that perhaps “Jenny wears her make-up too thick and her skirts too tight,” what we are really doing is asking, “How do I look? Am I pretty/sexy/desirable enough?” Gossip gives us direction as to what is appropriate in our particular community, and it validates our adherence to and our position within those group norms.

If the answer is, “No, I think Jenny looks great!” then we know that we need to up our own game and perhaps re-apply our lipstick. Conversely, if the answer is, “Agreed! Jenny makes sausage casings look flowy,” well then (sadly) you’ve just been validated as to your ability to dress appropriately. Bravo!

Gossip also serves to pass along information that could be vital to a community’s existence.

“The company accountant just bought a new Mercedes.”
“Bruno got sick after eating the purple fruit.”

When these messages enters the company or community grapevine it is indeed important—and those who receive the information can take steps to react to the news. They can start looking for a new job, they can quickly purchase more company stock, or—at a minimum, they can be sure to discard all purple fruit from their lunch bag.

At it’s very best, gossip helps to keep a community safe and aware of on-goings within said community. And those who deliver these necessary tidbits are provided a higher status in the community for their help in delivering the important information. 

The High Cost of Gossip
Although gossiping does offer some real and immediate perks, there are absolutely more severe, long-term consequences that will outlast the temporary buzz that gossip provides. And it definitely isn’t a strategy to use when attempting to make new friends.

People Don’t Trust You
While you and Laura might have bonded over your shared secret about Sally, this camaraderie is fleeting, and weighed heavily with the knowledge that at any moment Laura’s own hemline could make its own appearance on your grapevine.  

Laura may have appreciated you sharing with her, but she is well aware that she isn’t immune from your daily announcements either. She’ll enjoy a journey to the water cooler with you, but she’ll be sure never to turn her back on you either.

People Don’t Like You
Research found that while gossips actually had larger social networks than average, the participants in those networks didn’t actually have positive feelings for the gossip. In fact, they rated the gossip fairly low on the likeability scale.

If you self-identify as a gossip, then be aware that while you might know a lot of people, you actually know a lot of people who don’t hold high opinions of you.

While Paula may seek you out for some information about a co-worker, and she may even smile and join you for drinks after work occasionally, you aren’t someone she considers a friend (or even a candidate for friendship). She keeps you close because there is potential that you may offer her valuable information. Fail to provide and your friendship will too.

People See through You
Gossip does offer a form of reassurance through its window of what a group deems acceptable or not. However, more telling is what your comments say about you. Gossip about someone’s dating style, and others quickly realize that you aren’t too thrilled with your own dating record. Snark about another’s credit rating, and folks are quickly wise to your own money woes.

Concentrating on the perceived faults of others that are very similar to our own faults actually makes a bit of sense. These are issues that concern us, and we need information about these subjects. One way to get information without exposing ourselves is to pin the issue on someone else and see how others react.

“Jane has a credit rating of 500, that’s bad, right?”
“Melinda hasn’t had a date in two years. Something is wrong with her, don’t you think?”

Be forewarned you glass-house-dwellers, your best move is to just put the rock down lest you be exposed.

What Can We Do About Gossip

While I listed several benefits to gossiping, ultimately I think I’ve shown that gossip really only provides harm. It truly isn’t something that we want to engage in, and although it can be a tough habit to break, there are methods to stop gossip.

Stop Gossiping:
The surest way to stop gossip is to stop participating in gossip. It is that simple. I’d written the majority of this post, then found this terrific video by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. She challenged herself to stop gossiping and found that when she did, she not only was happier, but also felt less judged.

It really is that simple, just stop gossiping, and ask others to do so as well.

Change Direction:
No I don’t mean to turn around and head in the other direction (which now that I think of it, could be effective as well), I mean to change the course of the conversation. At the first sign of negative talk, simply change subjects. We’ve all so much interesting happening in our worlds, coming up with something truly interesting to talk about shouldn’t be a problem.

Talk about Yourself:
Usually the topic of gossip is something that you can relate to yourself. So when someone says, “Golly, Brenda is boring,” our response can be, “I know that I sometimes struggle with things to say myself.” Amazingly, the conversation turns to something much more productive, like how to make small talk, or how to politely exit a dull conversation.

Gossip really does say more about you than the subject of your remarks, so unless you like people seeing you as uninteresting, unkind, and untrustworthy, perhaps it is best to simply refrain.

Try it for a day, a week, and then a month and let us know how it goes, and more importantly, how you feel.

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