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Gossip and Our Social Relationships

by Marianne Navada

A couple of years ago, I noticed that I felt drained after chatting with friends or family. It didn’t happen all the time, but it happened often enough that I decided to investigate the matter. I started keeping track of when I would feel emotionally exhausted after hanging out. Here’s what I found out: gossip exhausts me. But not all gossip, just a particular kind.

What is Gossip?

Researchers define gossip in many ways. Definitions range from talking about someone without them being present, whether or not you personally know the subject in question (non-celebrity gossip), or whether gossip is critical, positive, or neutral in its tone. One thing researchers seem to agree on is that gossip is a paradox: it has a negative connotation in society but gossip plays an important social function. Even if we know that society looks down on gossiping, we still do it. Evolutionary and social scientists argue that we are programmed to do it and have something to gain. 

Social Gains

Research on gossip focuses on social gains. Evolutionary scientists believe that the information passed down as a result of gossip is critical for social survival. Gossip creates group cohesion when we communally talk about someone. It diffuses our own tension. Talking about a person in a negative light can dampen our own negative feelings about the person–a type of talk therapy if you will. Gossip entertains us. Last, we can gossip about ourselves, so if we want people to know something about us, we tell stories that put us in a certain light.

Even if we know that gossiping in general is looked down upon, we still do it when we are in a group. Evolutionary and social scientists argue that we are programmed to do it and have something to gain. 

There are those that acknowledge the harmful consequences of gossiping and provide guidelines on what is “good” and “bad” gossiping. A good gossiper uses information in a “responsible” way with noble intentions. Here’s the example:

You find out someone in your company is not a team player and you let other coworkers know so that they can try to avoid working with that colleague. 

NBC News

Essentially, to spare your coworkers a hard time, you gossip…

Questioning the Gains

For me, this is where it gets uncomfortable. What does it mean to act nobly or responsibly? In the example above, wouldn’t it be better if you were the manager to tell the person directly that they need to be more of a team player during reviews? Or if you are a colleague, how credible is your judgment of someone’s overall performance? Did you take into account other people’s behavior, including your own, in assessing the person’s inability to work in a team? Maybe it was team chemistry that needed to be looked at? Are you really in a position to provide helpful opinions? Instead of helping the other colleagues avoid the non-team player, why not help the person in question become better at teamwork? Isn’t that a more noble cause instead of singling the person out? 

Judgment

Reading the research on the types of gossip and what “good” gossip is, I realized that what drained me most about gossiping is the judgment that often comes with it. There’s a responsibility involved in gossiping, but it gets lost in the process.

I try to live by this rule: If I can’t say it directly to you, I’ll try not to say it behind your back.

I don’t mind information about family, friends, or co-workers, but the judgments and opinions that come after it, whether I’m giving it or listening to it, that’s where I feel drained of energy.

More often than not, gossip starts off as neutral information gets stretched in all directions. Here’s an example: 

Info: Mary married a surgeon and they live in a mansion. 

The Follow-Up: Isn’t he a lot younger than her? And my friend said Mary calls it a mansion, but it’s not that grand.

Stoic Philosophy

I like to use research for self betterment. In this case, however, the idea that gossip is a social skill, to stick to “good” gossip, or to use gossip as a way to form networks, doesn’t quite help me. A mindset gleaned from stoic philosophy, however, helps. Author Darius Foroux explains the difference between pure vs. value judgment. I find that the two concepts keep me grounded when gossip starts. I’m quoting him here, but I suggest you check out his work:

“So and so happened to me. And that hurt me.

The last sentence is the value-judgment part. So when you drop that last part, you don’t let the bad thing to make an impact on you. The event merely happened. The end.

Darius Foroux | Marcus Aurelius: 3 Rules For Life

Using Gossip as an Example

Mary married a surgeon and now lives in a mansion--The end

When I’m giving or receiving information about someone, I take note of the information (pure judgment), and stop when I find myself relating it to how it affects me (value judgment).  When other people start judging, I try not to join in.

The problem with gossip is that more often than not, gossip starts off as neutral information gets stretched in all directions.

The More You Know

Researchers can’t agree whether or not women gossip more than men, but we know that women gossip differently than men. Women perform more neutral gossip and gossip more about personal appearance

A wiseman once said nothing at all.

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