Why We Gossip
According to Evolutionary Psychologists, almost two thirds of our conversation time is devoted to gossip. That’s right – 2/3! That’s just absurd! Everyone is taught that gossiping is an ugly, low-minded pastime occupation.
“So how?” you may ask, can it be that we do it more than half the time????
First the positive:
Gossip isn’t always slandering someone.
1. Gossip Helps Us Bond With Others.
The act of gossiping – talking, listening, sharing secrets and stories – bonds us together. Let’s say you go to a party. You haven’t seen some of the people for eons. When you are fairly alone with one, they might ask if you’ve seen so-and-so?, and if so, how were they? If that goes well, you may exchange other stories.
- When we share emotions – feel the same about something/someone – we create a bond.
Last week I was hiking with an old high school friend who I hadn’t spoken to for years. We shared old memories, and then talked about the misfortunes of a friend we both knew and cared about. I can attest – that compassion-filled conversation made us both feel much closer.
- When we express shared values, we create a bond.
If I say I am a staunch vegan (I am not, for the record!), and you are too, we “get” each other in a way non-vegans can’t. In a way, we confirm that we are better people because of our shared values and commitments.
2. Gossip can serve to gather and share useful and helpful information about others – Without direct and embarrassing inquiry.
Gossip is a way of comparing notes, and its rarely meant to be with malicious intent amongst friends and more of a way getting the full picture. When we air our grievances about a third person, it serves two purposes that I can think of. First, we want to know our view is valid: “So that would upset you, too? Well that’s a relief – I was afraid I was feeling crazy”. Secondly, it can serve as a rehearsal for speaking directly to the person we are upset with.
If two people share concerns and intimate knowledge about someone they mutually care about, it creates a bond. In my family, for instance, we’d talk about our sense of hopelessness regarding another relative we loved. It was our year in and year out ritual. I even remember how awkward conversations became after that relative got better (what do we talk about now???)! Such gossip works because it seems better to learn so-and-so got divorced, is in the hospital, or died, sooner than later. On a similar note, being the “knowledge-sharer” of these things creates an advanced position in one’s social group.
3. Gossip teaches us the “rules” of social groups.
It keeps us in line. Most of us relate better to stories than to raw data, and gossip is a form of storytelling, an interpersonal folklore. “Did you hear about so-and-so?” By hearing and sharing these stories, we learn about the social norms and conventions of the people around us. We learn how to act – and how not to act – in certain situations. For example “THAT teacher is a bully – when Jimmy talked out in class, the teacher ….”; or “Can you believe I heard Emily swearing like a pirate? Parents shouldn’t put up with that!”
The Negative Side of Gossip
Gossip can actually be a kind of deterrent or a punishment against those who deviate from the values of a group. It’s tough to be the one being negatively gossiped about or the one excluded because of a nasty rumor, so the social pressure keeps us from veering too far away from the groups prescribed way of behaving.
According to one writer, the following are some ways it’s used in a group.
• For control or power – One negative use of gossip is to use it as a way of reducing the status of another. This can be very vicious, and unlike bonding-gossip described above, it’s meant to damage another. Look to politics for examples.
• Out of boredom – Many gossip studies say this was the #1 reason why young people say they spread rumors. Sometimes when everyone is happy and getting along, it seems kind of dull. Spreading juicy rumors shakes things up a bit, gets two people to start a fight, and that adds a little excitement to the group. All those tabloid newspapers and TV shows full of celebrity gossip are pure proof that rumors are a popular form of entertainment. All reality shows script this in. (heavy sigh)
• Out of jealousy or to feel superior – When people are feeling bad about themselves, they may unconsciously think they’ll feel better if there were someone worse off than they are. This can be random neighborhood gossip, but also look at cyberbullying.
• To feel like part of the group – If everybody else is gossiping or spreading rumors, you might feel you have to do the same thing in order to fit in. When you’re “in on the secret,” you’re in the group. Unfortunately, you could be the person who the gossip or rumor is about next time.
What To Do if You Are The Target Of Gossip, and why “no comment” is the wrong answer
In a gossipy world, what we do matters less than what people think we do, so we’d better be able to frame our actions in a positive light. As social creatures, hearing rumors, especially repeatedly, tends to increase our belief in them. Not commenting on a rumor tends to raise the question, or cause suspicion that the rumors might be true.
• Confront the person. If the gossiper is causing damage to your reputation, and if you don’t expect him to stop soon, then you need to speak with the person. Even though the accusations may be unfair and untrue, the situation is real. You need to get ahead of the rumor in order to deal with it in the here and now.
Say something a bit aggressive, like “I am aware of what you are doing and only those who are scared to face one another gossip.” Look the person in the eye, and you tell your side of the story. Most people will apologize and remember your talk the next time they decide to gossip about you.
• Teach People How to Treat You. If you walk into your social situation avoiding eye contact, and with your head hung down, your body language says “guilty as charged”, even though what you are really thinking is “I can’t stand to know what they are thinking of me!” You have to be your own best friend, and you have to decide who you are at the core of your being. With that in mind, carry yourself as such.
But here’s the thing…
Gossip is a low-minded pastime occupation. Because we have evolved, we can choose not to participate. We can discuss, directly, our grievances, our worries, our concerns. We can communicate honestly and with integrity. We can investigate our judgements, and learn about ourselves. We can grow our compassionate hearts by understanding our judgements.
Sydney University’s Associate Professor of gender and cultural studies, Catherine Driscoll.