Gossip has been called many different things — nature’s telephone (by Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem), a national pastime (by American humorist Erma Bombeck), and even poison (by Brazilian model Gisele Bündchen).
On this last point, it’s true that gossip has had a pretty bad rap. Some have gone so far as to call it a sin. But in truth, how many of us can confidently say that we’ve never gossiped? Can you? I won’t judge. Let they who had never partaken in gossip throw the first stone, and all that.
But it turns out that when it comes to gossip, there’s likely not a lot of stone-throwing possible.
Everyone Gossips, According to Science
Scientists define gossip as talking about someone who isn’t present during the conversation, as well as sharing information about them that isn’t generally known. Research has highlighted some pretty interesting realities about who and how often we gossip.
For instance, a 2019 study, which tracked the conversations of 467 people aged 18 to 58, found that pretty much everybody gossips. And this is true across age groups, gender, and class — despite all the stereotypes pointing to women, the poor, and less educated people as the worst gossipers. In fact, the only significant variable they were able to tie to more gossip was extraversion: Extroverts tend to gossip a bit more than introverts.
On the whole, however, gossip is ubiquitous: Across the 16 or so hours we’re awake, we spend 52 minutes — or just under an hour — talking about other people.
It’s not even that other people’s lives are particularly scandalous or exciting. Most of our chatter about others tends to be neutral.
An earlier study, this time exploring email conversations, found that around 15% of work emails contain gossip.
This was a 2012 study, though, and there’s no telling how work gossip patterns may have changed in the decade since, especially with the rise of flexible work arrangements and social media platforms.
What these studies do tell us clearly is that gossiping is something we all do. And, more importantly, it’s not inherently bad.
Around 75% of our gossip is neutral, or as some scientists describe it, “evaluative.” These document facts about someone who isn’t there, like your aunt having to go to the hospital or a coworker running late for work. This type of gossip helps us stay connected with the wider community, and can even help us establish trusting relationships with others.
“You can establish a relationship by talking about other people and finding out something about others in the group,” explains Dr. Megan Robbins, a University of California, Riverside psychology professor who spearheaded the 2019 study. “Even for those types of gossip that are evaluative, you’re saying, ‘I’m trusting you with this information.'”
The science also points to some fascinating insights as to why we gossip. It’s an evolutionary adaptation, a way to connect, a form of service, and even a means for personal growth — but only when done right.
…as Evolutionary Adaptation
Gossip, according to social scientists, is very likely a product of evolution. As social creatures, we thrive when we better understand the social landscape around us.
“In prehistoric times, people who were fascinated by the lives of other people were more successful,” explains Dr. Frank McAndrew, a psychology professor at Knox College in Illinois.
He says, “People who had an intense interest in that — that constantly were monitoring who’s sleeping with who and who’s friends with whom and who you can trust and who you can’t — came out ahead. People who just didn’t care about that stuff got left behind.”
This means that on top of gossip being something we all do, it’s something we’ve all evolved to do for survival. We’re hard-wired to care about those within and outside of our circle.
This evolutionary trait also makes us literally perceive others differently based on what we hear about them, according to a 2011 study. In it, researchers showed participants different faces paired with different kinds of gossip. Some were negative (“threw a chair at his classmate”), some were positive (“helped an elderly woman with her groceries”), while others were neutral (“drew the curtains in the room”).
What they found was that people were more likely to fix their gazes on those faces that were associated with negative gossip — suggesting that we’re hard-wired to pay attention to people we’re told can be unpleasant, dishonest, or downright dangerous.
Aside from setting up unconscious warning systems, gossip can also help us figure out those tricky unwritten rules that govern different social settings. Water cooler talk, for example, can give vital information not just on who to avoid working with in the office, but also how best to present yourself and maybe even how to file a leave.
Curiously, the evolutionary function of gossip also applies to celebrities, though research shows that we don’t gossip about them quite as often as we do about people we know in real life.
For most of human history, knowing a lot about someone translates to that person being socially important to you. But modern media means that we hear so much about celebrities we’ll likely never meet, and being privy to information about them makes our brains think these people are important to us in our daily lives.
“Consciously, you know they don’t matter and you’re not going to meet them,” McAndrew says. “But they press the same buttons in our brains as people who do matter to us.”
… as a Means to Connect
Gossip functions as more than just a survival mechanism, though. Researchers have found that it can also be a good way to bond with others.
Beyond the very negative connotations we tend to associate with gossip, Dr. Eshin Jolly, a postdoctoral researcher at Dartmouth College, explains, “it can be a means of social and substantive connection.”
His research, conducted with Dr. Luke Chang and published last year, explored the rich and multifaceted nature of gossip, which more often occurred among participants who could only observe the behavior of a few others and not the entire group.
The researchers found that people relied on second-hand information about others when direct observation wasn’t possible, and that this helped members feel more connected with each other at the end of the experiment.
“By exchanging information with others, gossip is a way of forming relationships,” Chang explains. “It involves trust and facilitates a social bond that is reinforced as further communication takes place.”
This sense of connection was also highlighted in a 2018 study, which paid attention to the gossiping habits of older adults. For elders who lived alone in New York City, gossip with other older adults in places like local shops and restaurants served as a way to foster connection and social support, helping people combat loneliness and maintain social ties.
Lead researcher Dr. Stacy Torres explains that even when the gossip may sound negative or rude, the conversations tend to start from a place of thoughtfulness. For instance, she shares, even when they’d use sometimes disparaging nicknames, they’d ask, “Has anyone heard from old so-and-so?” This, to Torres, shows how the older adults were concerned about each other, and often checked in to see how others were doing.
Celebrity gossip, meanwhile, can also help us connect with others. Knowledge about pop culture gives us something of a common ground when we don’t know someone very well just yet. “You might even think about keeping up with celebrities as a social skill,” McAndrew points out. “It makes you know about things that other people care about.”
… as a Form of Service to Others
Gossip has also been described as prosocial. A 2012 study, for instance, found that negative gossip can be prosocial when it’s driven by concern for others. Those who are generous and moral are more likely to pass along information about untrustworthy people as a warning to others, which helps people know whom to trust and whom to avoid.
The threat of being gossiped about can also help prevent untrustworthy behavior and promote prosocial ones, which then helps build more cooperation within groups.
This is why, for Dr. Matthew Feinberg, lead author of the study and a University of California, Berkeley social psychologist, “We shouldn’t feel guilty for gossiping if the gossip helps prevent others from being taken advantage of.”
A follow-up study, conducted in 2014 by Feinberg and Dr. Robb Willer, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University, found that gossip can work alongside functions of ostracism — or kicking people out of the group — in order to reform bullies, prevent the exploitation of others, and promote cooperation within groups.
By removing those who tend to behave selfishly and without regard for others, the researchers point out that, “more cooperative individuals can more freely invest in the public good without fear of exploitation.”
…as a Means for Personal Growth
Last but not least, gossip can also help us be better people. Aside from reining in selfishness, as the studies above suggest, gossip has the power to promote growth.
For those sharing gossip, just saying good things about someone else — what researchers call “positive gossip” — can boost one’s self-esteem. A 2010 study found that those who gossip about others positively tended to have higher levels of self-esteem, life satisfaction, and social support. This can be thought of as an extension of the benefit we get from giving compliments.
And for those receiving gossip, the information they hear can help promote self-reflection. A 2014 study from The Netherlands highlights how receiving positive gossip can be informative, as it can suggest ways that one might improve themselves. This is why people tend to be alert after hearing positive information about someone else. It’s something they can learn from.
Because we tend to compare ourselves with the people we hear gossip about, positive gossip can be a tool for better understanding ourselves and who we want to be.
When Gossip Is Harmful
Given all this research, it is still important to note that not all gossip — positive, negative, or neutral — is good for us.
Scientists warn against gossip that doesn’t provide any opportunity for social learning, as in the case of gossip that revolves solely around insulting someone’s appearance and health, or otherwise sowing undue hate for someone, like what the media did to Britney Spears. Gossip can also be harmful when the stories shared are simply untrue. A bully, for example, might gossip about you to turn your peers against you.
A bad gossiper is someone who would share stories about you to others either recklessly, or just to get ahead. We also tend to have a good sense of who bad gossipers are, and trust these people less — though sometimes, we learn about these people the hard way, like once they’ve spread the word about our failing marriage or flunked exam.
How to Be a Responsible Gossiper
Being a good gossiper is knowing when to divulge information, and why. So if you’re worried that your gossiping isn’t very healthy, a good place to start would be to examine your reasons for gossiping.
Do you blab about everything you’ve ever heard about others indiscriminately? Or maybe you tend to use information about others for your own personal gain and damage the reputation of others?
If the answer is yes, then it may be time to take a step back. It might also help to think about which types of situations bring out this side of you, so that you can actively work to avoid them.
Scientists also offer other tips:
- Think twice. Responsible gossiping is all about the who and the why, but sometimes these might be confusing in the heat of the moment. So pause, and consider if what you’re going to stay constitutes a stab in the back, or can be helpful for others looking to avoid untrustworthy people or dangerous situations.
- Don’t do it for yourself. Yes, it sounds funny to think of gossip as a selfless act for others, but just as you’d learn to stay away from bad gossipers, people will start avoiding you if they find out you’re spreading information about others for personal gain.
- Don’t lie. Resist the temptation to exaggerate for better shock value. You can’t help others through responsible gossip if what you’re telling them are lies.
- Try journaling. A 2020 study found that keeping a gratitude journal may help in reducing harmful gossip. Maybe you just need an outlet, or perhaps you just need a reminder of the positives — either way, taking the time to journal about how you feel and what you appreciate around you can promote positive behaviors.
Spilling tea isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Like a lot of what we do every day, it’s more about our motivations for doing it, and the end effects of our gossiping. So feel free to share this with your most active group chats — that way, you can pour the tea peacefully and responsibly.