Are you a gossip? I admit I’ve gossiped about people I didn’t like in the past. I’ve even been aware of it at the time. The thing is, I’m one of those annoying people that says ridiculous stuff like ‘Say it to my face’ or ‘I prefer straight-talking people’. So why did I gossip? Why do people gossip?
My Experience with People Who Gossip
“Whoever gossips to you, will gossip about you.” ~ Spanish Proverb
Here’s a story. Many years ago, I worked as a commis chef in a pub kitchen. I became good friends with a waitress there. We would meet up when the pub had a band playing and always had a fun time. But there was one thing I didn’t like about her and that was her incessant gossiping.
She would always gossip about people behind their backs. Obviously, I knew she didn’t talk about me, I was her friend. Then the head chef burst my bubble. She gossips about everyone, he said, even you. I was shocked. Don’t be so naïve, he said. Why would she leave you out?
He was right. She talked about friends she’d known for years before she’d met me. Why did I assume I’d be exempt?
So why do people gossip? What purpose does it serve? Is there a type of person that gossips? Can gossip be a good thing? What can you do to avoid being a malicious gossip?
Although gossip typically has negative associations, there are positive aspects to gossiping.
Why Do People Gossip? 6 Psychological Reasons
1. To spread social information
Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar proposes that gossiping is uniquely human and as such, has an important social significance. Dunbar’s theory appears correct when you consider a whopping two-thirds of conversation is social talk.
Our closest primates, monkeys, and apes learned to survive by living in large social groups, similar social groups as humans. As they are in close quarters with one another, they need to form tight bonds to avoid conflict within the group. They do this by grooming one another, however, it’s time-consuming.
Gossiping is faster, more effective, and can reach a larger audience than one-on-one grooming. We tell our friends there’s a good restaurant in town or that their favourite store has a sale on or that someone was robbed near their street. Gossip is used to divulge social information.
2. To cement our place in a group
Humans are social animals and live in groups, we know that. But how do we maintain our position within that group? If knowledge is power, then gossip is currency. It allows us to cement our place within our group.
According to Social Identity Theory, people have an inbuilt tendency to want to belong to groups. Being part of certain groups helps build our identities. We are biased towards our group and create boundaries from other groups.
Gossiping to people from our in-group about those from an out-group indicates a level of trust from our group members. We are accepted or our position is maintained within that group.
3. To warn other people
See that dog-walker across the road? She talks for hours, I’m just giving you a head’s up. Don’t use that plumber, he rips people off. Oh, I wouldn’t eat at that restaurant, they got shut down last year because of rats in the kitchen.
This type of gossip is called prosocial gossip. People with a moral compass tend to share gossip about those who are untrustworthy. They feel they have to protect others from unscrupulous workers, bad practices, or rip-off establishments.
So the gossip might be negative, but it is about people who have behaved in an antisocial way.
4. To bond with people
“No one gossips about other people’s secret virtues.” ~ Bertrand Russell
‘So, I haven’t told anyone this and I really shouldn’t be telling you, but I know I can trust you.’ If a friend said that to you, how would you feel? Excited as to what was coming next? A little bit special? Warm and fuzzy inside?
Well, it all depends on what you say next. A 2006 study reported that sharing negative rather than positive gossip about a person actually strengthens a closeness between people.
If you don’t believe this, you are not alone. The participants of the study couldn’t get their heads around the results either. They insisted that sharing positive attitudes would promote closeness, despite evidence to the contrary.
5. As a manipulation tactic
“Isn’t it kind of silly to think that tearing someone else down builds you up?” ~ Sean Covey
I found a recent study on the types of gossip, called the Bright and Dark Side of Gossip (2019). It describes the positive and negative motives for gossiping. One interesting detail is how positive gossip is more often truthful and negative gossip is more likely to be false.
False gossip is another way of spreading rumours about a person. The study argues that the target of false gossip feels punished and manipulated into changing their behaviour.
False gossip also affects those around the target of the gossip. They adapt their behaviour to comply with the source of the gossip. After all, no one wants to be the next target.
6. To feel superior to others
Having a piece of gossip puts you in a position of power, especially if that gossip puts down another person. Not only do you know something no one else does, but the thing you know is detrimental. And as we know, negative gossip strengthens bonds.
By putting someone down, you are boosting your group’s self-esteem. People use gossip to feel better about themselves. It is a temporary measure that doesn’t last long.
What to Do about People Who Gossip?
If the gossip is negative and derogatory, it can be tempting to be caught up in the excitement of the conspiracy aspect of gossiping. Instead of fuelling negative gossip, consider the following:
What is the purpose of the gossip?
We know there are different types of gossip and so there must be different reasons why people gossip. Establishing the purpose of the gossip is your first step.
Some gossip can be helpful, for example, avoiding a garage that rips off female customers is helpful social gossip. So don’t dismiss all gossip before you’ve heard what it is.
Is the gossip true or false?
Now you know the reason for the gossip, ask yourself – is this likely to be true? The gossip could relate to a person you know well. Don’t forget, you are not a passive audience to a gossiper. You can ask questions.
Do some probing. Where did the incident take place? What time and date did it happen? Who were they with? Do some detective work if the story doesn’t add up.
If you’ve decided the gossip is positive and helpful, then you can pass it on. However, if it is negative and nasty, what should you?
- Change the subject – politely say that you don’t want to talk about people behind their backs as there are always two sides to a story.
- Confront the gossiper – ask the gossiper outright why they are talking about this person in such a derogatory way.
- Defend the person – even if the gossip is true, you have a right to defend your friend and ask that the gossip stops.
- Ignore it – you don’t have to take part in gossiping, nor do you have to spread it. Walk away and ignore it.
Negative gossip strengthens bonds between people and makes you feel good. So it’s easy to see why people gossip and for what reason spreading rumors can be so pervasive. It can be hard to step away from a gossiping circle.
But remember, if your friends are gossiping to you about other people behind their backs, it’s likely they’re gossiping about you behind yours.
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