Timothy Hallett, associate professor in the Indiana University sociology department, defines gossip as “the unsanctioned evaluative talk about people who aren’t present.”
It’s no secret that everyone enjoys a bit of gossip. Science suggests that as humans we were made to gossip – it’s part of our biological makeup as social beings. And there are the good sides of gossip – it helps us build camaraderie, to relate to one another, and can be humanising as we realise we all share similar flaws. Gossip also plays a role in protecting others from being exploited by passing on information about bad behaviour to warn others. Of course, the assumption here is that people always tell the truth.
However, let’s explore the other side of gossip – when it isn’t used to serve the purpose of reinforcing some important societal norms. Lolly Daskal from Psychology Today, summarises the downsides as:
- Creates “us” versus “them”. Gossip is a powerful tool to bring people together, but conversely establishes an exclusion of “them”.
- Gossip ruins reputations. It’s hard to build a reputation, and once broken it’s even harder to repair. Gossip is often delivered with the authority of truth but without all the facts, reasons and circumstances.
- Gossip pulls rank. Gossiping gives a false sense of moral superiority. Nietzsche points out that the feeling of rank is one of the most basic human instincts. To gossip about someone is to elevate yourself above him or her.
- Gossip is morally questionable. The German term “schadenfreude” means taking pleasure in the pain of others and we do take a strange sort of pleasure in discussing the suffering of others. It may be a fact of human psychology, but it’s morally unsound.
- Gossip can lead to groupthink. Groupthink occurs when a group makes irrational or dysfunctional decisions in order to maintain harmony or conformity in the group. We are vulnerable to groupthink when we are insulated from outside opinions and disregard whether a question is true or false, or right or wrong.
So, how do we avoid these pitfalls of gossip?
- Notice. When you find yourself repeating a name in a conversation, stop yourself after the second repeat. Ask yourself whether bringing this name or story up is bettering the world or is it to boost your ego?
- Consider why what they’re doing bothers you so much. What is the heart of the problem – why are you so annoyed with this person? Are you annoyed because you may be similarly guilty of the same practices?
- Focus on solutions. Rather than just speaking about the person, perhaps there’s a better way to work through or around the root issues and challenges? If it is a person who is going to continue to be in your life for a long time, it may be better to figure out a solution with them.
- Give yourself a time limit. If you just can’t help gossiping about someone, set yourself a time limit i.e. 2 minutes. Once that time is up, change the topic. Focus your energies on something more positive!
Next time we catch ourselves gossiping, let’s take a moment to think about whether it’s worthwhile. After all, a little gossip goes a long way.