A famous quote, attributed to Socrates, purports that "Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people." I happen to believe this is true—so why, oh why, does gossiping feel so good?
The Advantages Of Gossip
It turns out, humans are biologically predisposed to like gossiping; the act of doing so actually reduces stress and anxiety by releasing feel-good chemicals like serotonin. It's a form of biologically advantageous social bonding that also helps us identify who is within our circle of trust and who is not, and it provides us with vital social information required to successfully navigate our lives. It also helps reinforce our worldview by providing us with a reality check, or second opinion, of our read on events.
From a less positive angle, we like to gossip because it gives us a sense of moral superiority and is a form of schadenfreude.
Questioning The Urge To Gossip
"Her life was, by some measures, ruined by the rumor mill."
I never thought much about gossip until a girlfriend of mine showed up to my house one day with a very juicy tidbit accompanied by a scandalous video. I'll be intentionally vague so as not to bring more pain to the person at the center of the scandal, but the video (so I'm told, as I never actually agreed to watch it) exposed a young woman doing things she likely would not have done had she known she was being filmed (she didn't) and that were clearly the actions of someone who was troubled. The video was initially circulated by the girl's roommate, who felt personally wronged by the actions portrayed in the video and wanted the girl "to pay." (Note: The actions were not actually harmful in any way to anyone except, arguably, the girl doing them.) I don't know the young woman in the video, but a lot of people I know do, and every last one of them seemed to be talking about the events in question. When I heard all of this, I felt ill. The girl in question probably would have benefited immensely from the roommate's—or anyone's—concern and compassion. Instead, her life was, by some measures, ruined by the rumor mill.
The Consequences Of Negative Gossip
Lest you think I'm being dramatic, gossip—while completely natural—can have serious consequences. It turns out that hearing negative gossip about someone can literally change the way you view them: It alters the way our visual system responds to a face.
Reputations are hard to build and easy to ruin, mainly because positive news doesn’t have the same weight in the brain as does negative. Once you’ve helped spread negative gossip about someone, it can takes decades to undo the damage.
Why Not Gossiping Is So Freaking Hard
Stepping out of gossip is hard to do, as it is a form of currency in almost all relationships. Engaging in an intimate conversation with a friend without participating in gossip, then, is a lot like trying to shop with no money. Still, in the moment following the extreme rush of empathy I felt for the poor girl in the video, I was determined to do just that: For one month, I'd stop gossiping altogether.
What I Learned From Trying Not To Gossip
First of all, we gossip so much—it’s alleged to comprise 80% of our daily conversations! Try taking note of how often the lives of other people (and your judgments of them) creep into your conversations. It can be as obvious as "OMG did you hear about...?” to something more innocuous, like "She thinks she's going to marry him, but I don't trust him." Not participating at all is nearly impossible—and very stressful.
"A friend shares a juicy tidbit about someone else in order to bond with you; if you don't take the bait, the bonding doesn't happen."
Secondly, people don't trust people who don't gossip, which makes sense if you think about the evolutionary reasons gossip exists in the first place. A friend shares a juicy tidbit about someone else in order to bond with you; if you don't take the bait, the bonding doesn't happen. If you take the whole no-gossip thing even further and actively shut it down when it arises, you're in for a world of awkward. With my refusal to gossip, I felt an increase in tension in my relationships, specifically with my closest female friends. Sh*t got weird as they felt distanced, shamed and chastised for what had before been totally unremarkable behavior.
For example, let's say, ahem, hypothetically, that when I get together with one specific girlfriend (let's call her Susie), we sort of love to talk about another of our besties (let's call her Jill). We love Jill, but she says and does things that leave our mouths agape on a regular basis. It's fun to gossip about them. Specifically with Susie. (More to come on the real reasons we likely talk about her behind her back.) So, in the midst of this experiment, when Susie said, "Can we talk about when Jill said [an outlandish thing I can't repeat here in order to protect the guilty, which is sad for you because this sh*t is cray]?” To which I responded, "I'd rather not." To which she responded with awkward laughter. To which I responded, "I'm serious. Surely as grown women we have something more interesting to talk about." To which she responded by sulking through the rest of her drink and getting the check about three hours earlier than she would have normally.
Why I Loved Not Gossiping, Despite How Tough It Was
Gossip is supposed to make you feel morally superior to the subject of your gossip, right? I would argue, however, that I felt morally superior—especially to my old self—in not gossiping. In one scenario, you are reaping the benefits of looking down on someone. In the other scenario, you are eliminating your need for that type of validation and instead, ideally, practicing empathy.
"I found myself having a lot of positive conversations instead of negative ones."
Another benefit of not engaging in gossip was that I found myself having a lot of positive conversations instead of negative ones. Rather than focusing on judging the actions and choices of others, the conversations tended to focus around the actions and choices of the two people participating, which was—gasp!—productive and therefore felt just as good in a real, meaningful way as a serotonin-releasing gossip fest would have felt. Additionally, I found myself discussing, as would have made Socrates proud, ideas rather than people. This, I feel, was beneficial to my personal growth.
Gossiping With A Conscience
If there were so many positive benefits to my month of not gossiping, that means I'll never gossip again, right? Wrong. As explored above, gossip is natural, has evolutionary benefits and is a necessary agent for interpersonal bonding; however, I am aiming to change the way I do it. I love this advice for gossiping with empathy. It posits that if you find yourself gossiping about someone frequently, it likely means you have unresolved issues with that person that aren’t going to be remedied by talking sh*t about them. Instead of bad-mouthing the person in question, you should mindfully request third-party advice on mending the relationship's issues. (You might even need to request third-party input on what, exactly, the issues might be.) Then, take this advice or insight to heart and actively try to repair the relationship. If it can't be fixed, and you still feel like talking about the person behind their back regularly, you are in a toxic relationship that needs to be exited. Ideally, you would be able to say any of what you're saying behind your friend's back to her face, even if you'd prefer to get third-party advice before doing so (which is a totally normal, healthy and supported-by-evolution approach).
"What you say about others says a lot about you."
When it comes to gossiping about people you don't know well, spreading rumors you aren't certain are true or saying things that could severely damage someone's reputation, my question is: Why? There's another saying I love, which is “What you say about others says a lot about you.” I believe we all have bad days that can be made better by engaging in a little schadenfreude, but I do not think our best selves are evident when we are spending time trying to hurt other people, no matter what they're purported to have done. Those in my social circle spreading the video did so to feel better about themselves—they would never do what she did—but I don't believe that, upon further introspection, they could possibly feel good about helping to ruin her life.
If You're Being Gossiped About
One final advantage to not gossiping? It diffuses the gossip of others, or at least it did in my case. While I was conducting this experiment, there was a schism in a certain contingent of my social circle, and third parties kept coming to me with information about what two of the people involved were saying about me. In response, I simply said, "I'm not giving air time to this drama," followed by a positive comment about each of the women in question. I could tell all involved were frustrated by my unwillingness to feed the gossip monster, but it was an effective strategy: When gossip becomes too one-sided, it loses power. A person who is saying negative things about someone who is only saying positive things about them seems a bit like a bully, no?
There is a final quote I will leave you with, which goes something like this: "Only worry when people aren't talking about you." It would be great if no one gossiped about you again for the rest of your life; however, I would argue that maybe it's not the worst thing in the world to consider the fact that those gossiping about you have nothing better to do than talk about you, whereas you have many, many more productive, instructive and enlightening conversations happening in your life now that you no longer engage in negative gossip.