Gossip Is Good
Gossip can be awful.
Being the subject of malicious gossip is pretty much the ur-nightmare of adolescence. I still remember being 13 and having a group of girls circle me in the bathroom, insisting that I show them my breasts because they’d heard a rumor that I stuffed my bra. I didn’t go full-on Carrie at them, but needless to say, I wasn’t thrilled.
Years later, having finally recovered from the Bra Gossip Debacle, I’m going to state an unpopular opinion: I also think gossiping can be great. Really. Not only can gossip be quite fun, it’s actually very useful when it comes to forming bonds, encouraging good behavior in others, alleviating frustration, and feeling better about our lives.
Turns out, the science backs me up.
Dr. Amir Levine, a psychiatrist and a neuroscientist and the author of Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find and Keep Love, explains that gossip can create intimate connection: “When primates groom each other, it’s a way to bond. That’s the equivalent of gossip for humans.”
That makes sense to me. My friend Laura and I have spent endless hours discussing shocking and hilarious tidbits about our friends, families, co-workers, and even people on Facebook we haven’t seen in years.
And gossip defines your inner circle: those you gossip with but would never gossip about. To wit, Laura and I gossip constantly about our mutual friend Alice, but I would never gossip with Alice about Laura, and I am sure that Laura would never gossip with Alice about me. (Right, Laura?) This tells me that Laura and I are very close friends, much closer than we are with Alice.
It’s also a way of confirming safety in our relationships: I know I can tell Laura anything and she won’t repeat it. Dr. Levine refers to this dynamic as “us against the world.”
Research shows that gossiping about selfish or unfair behavior alleviates frustration.
Gossip has the additional benefit of teaching people how to behave. For example, one of the things that drives me (and Laura) crazy about Alice is that she’s constantly asking for things — career connections, dog sitting, emotional support — but is never available to help us when we need it. She isn’t self-aware enough to change this annoying habit, so gossiping might actually be the best possible thing Laura and I can do.
Here’s one particularly egregious example: Alice once borrowed my car, didn’t put gas in the tank, and left fast food wrappers in the backseat! Ah, I feel so much better now that I’ve told you that. Why? Because research has shown that gossiping about selfish or unfair behavior alleviates frustration. “In our experiments we found that people tend to experience frustration when they find out that someone has behaved in a deviant way,” says Dr. Robb Willer, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University. “But engaging in gossip, warning another about this person, can temper their frustration. So in this way, gossiping can make you feel better about a transgression you’ve witnessed.”
And this type of “prosocial” gossip serves a function beyond venting: One study co-authored by Willer shows that gossip has a positive effect in a group by spreading the word about who is out for themselves and who is a team player. Willer explains: “When people pass on information about others who are selfish and untrustworthy it warns others to avoid these people. As a result, overall rates of exploitation can be controlled in the group.”
Why not just tell Alice? Wouldn’t that be a lot simpler than all this gossiping? Well, it’s worth a try, but it certainly wouldn’t be as much fun. And gossip can itself be a deterrent: Dr. Willer’s research has shown that people behave better when they know they might be gossiped about.
Gossip can also add a dose of reality to our otherwise overly curated, social media-filtered world views. As the mother of a 10-week-old baby, I am grateful every day for gossip. How else would I know that the mom whose baby is “sleeping through the night” is actually doling out nightly doses of Benadryl? Or that the hippy goddess with the cloth diapers has dealt with seven cases of diaper rash? Or that the mom who is always posting photos laughing with her child is a total faker? If I didn’t have a way to know the real story behind all of this online “authenticity,” I would think I was the only mother who was struggling to feed my child and occasionally shower. That’s all thanks to mom-group gossip.
One warning, though: There is a thin line between lighthearted, meaningless gossip and something more sinister. Dr. Levine points out that when gossip is false, it can become harmful: “Gossip can become slander, and then the story can become more powerful than the facts.”
Dr. Willer adds, “Malicious gossip is quite real. Sometimes people gossip as a way to get back at their enemies or advance themselves. We didn’t study that form of gossip here, but we suspect that its existence is the reason that gossip as a whole tends to be viewed negatively. What our research shows is that malicious gossip isn’t the only kind, that a lot of gossip serves an important social function.”
This non-malicious, prosocial gossip is a natural and healthy part of being alive. The average person gossips for an hour a day. Children gossip by the time they’re in preschool. Even dolphins seem to gossip.
So if you’re not already an avid gossiper, now might be the time to pick up the habit. Because honestly, aren’t you sick of kids and dolphins having all the fun?