Whether it's the popularity of podcast Normal Gossip, which shares everyday dirt from anonymous “friend of friends,” or of the blind item account DeuxMoi, it seems there's no shortage of evidence that everyone loves dissecting other people's business. Yet “gossip” still gets a bad rap, thanks to its association with mean girl behavior and false rumors.
But surprisingly, according to experts, there’s no reason to quit gossiping, as doing so can bring both psychological and social benefits.
Why does gossiping make us feel good?
“The most common motive for gossiping is to gather new information and try to establish how accurate it is, but we often gossip just for the sheer enjoyment of it. Gossip is relaxed, informal and entertaining. It is, by definition, fun,” says social psychologist Frank McAndrew. “No one heaves a heavy sigh and moans about having to head off for a good gossip with friends.”
If you’ve ever felt particularly close to a friend after spilling some hot tea, it’s a notion that not all in your head: Gossip really can bring us closer, on a chemical level. Says McAndrew, “Recent research indicates that there may be a chemical basis for the bonding benefits of gossip. Specifically, it appears that engaging in gossip triggers a spike in oxytocin, a hormone that is intimately bound up with good feelings and positive human experiences such as empathy, mother-infant bonding, and cooperation with others.”
What role does gossip play in community?
It’s not just these bonding chemicals that give gossip such an important role in our social lives. Megan Robbins, a psychologist at the University of California Riverside, who has studied gossip’s impact on our wellbeing, says that gossip also serves a moral function.
“You don’t want to be known as an immoral person, generally, or someone to be avoided. Gossip can keep people in check, knowing that it's possible that people will talk about you and that the potentially negative gossip can lead to a bad reputation. It serves a prosocial function that way,” she explains, referring to actions that benefit others. “The other way that it can serve as a prosocial function is by teaching people what people consider to be right and wrong forms of behavior. So even if the gossip isn't about you, you're learning what people think is really bad or really good behavior.”
Friendship expert Danielle Jackson, who hosts the podcast Friend Forward, adds that gossip can keep us safe, by allowing us to identify “who's an ally, who was a threat.”
“I need information from other people to know how to navigate this world,” she notes. “If I get a new job and the person training me warns me about what happened last week to a former co-worker, who got fired for doing this or that, it's not necessarily negative gossip, it's information I need to know in terms of what qualifies as a violation here and what things need to be done in order to stay in line.”
Mental health writer Allison Raskin, founder of the Substack Emotional Support Lady and author of the new book Overthinking About You: Navigating Romantic Relationships When You Have Anxiety, OCD, and/or Depression, says ultimately, gossip provides more positive things than negative.
“To me, good gossip is really just a form of storytelling and humans love a good story. It's interesting and fun to learn about the ways other people navigate life,” Raskin, who even created the scripted podcast Gossip all about the chatter between three gossiping friends, explains. “I also think gossip allows the opportunity to get to know other people's perspectives on things. I might hear a story about someone's affair and have a totally different takeaway than the person telling me the story. What starts as a piece of information can ignite larger conversations about how we view the world.”
But when can gossip be a negative thing?
While gossip may have an important space in society, that doesn’t mean its bad reputation is completely unwarranted — but there are ways to make sure your gossip habit doesn’t cross the line into petty or cruel. Jackson says that there’s a difference between talking “about someone” and talking “against someone,” a distinction first popularized by famed linguist Deborah Tannen.
“If we are disparaging someone or speaking badly about someone for the sake of discrediting them, it becomes something else entirely,” Jackson adds. “It becomes harmful when we are getting into the practice of just speaking poorly of other people just for the sake of speaking poorly. It is something that I've noticed can become habitual in certain companies. You might find that you don't normally engage in this, but when you get with certain friends, it's kind of all you guys do.”
McAndrew points out that ultimately, speaking badly about people can harm you, as well, explaining, “Many people may feel bad about themselves if they engage in ‘bad’ gossip, which is selfishly motivated gossip that only serves to destroy the reputation of someone else in an attempt to get ahead." Still, she adds, "highly competitive" people "probably feel little remorse about this.”
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