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Gossip: It Can Devastate, but Here's How it Can Also be Beneficial

Overall, gossip has gotten a bad rap in America. A gossip, a yenta, a blabbermouth, or whatever you like to call them, is someone who goes around spreading rumors, sharing other people's personal information, or reporting sensational facts about others.

While there is a real downside to gossip, particularly to the person who is being gossiped about, who doesn't love getting the latest juicy details on the office love triangle, their colleague's big fight with the boss, or their neighbor's recent run-in with the law?

An earful of juicy gossip may be just the thing to start your day.

Gossip, it seems, is a part of human nature, something we're drawn to rather inherently. Even those who say they don't like to spread it often say so just before engaging in it, as in, "I don't like to gossip, but ... "

Now here's something to consider: gossip may not actually be a bad thing. In fact, it can be quite good.

When the Gossip is Good

"If people aren't talking about other people, it's a signal that something is wrong--that we feel socially alienated or indifferent," says Ralph Rosnow, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Temple University and coauthor of Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay.

That's right. For all our talk about how gossiping isn't an admirable quality, it turns out that in reality, gossip helps us feel like we fit in.

"I heard a lot [of gossip] in the hallway, on the way to class," said Mady Miraglia, a high school history teacher in Los Gatos, California about a previous job. "To be honest, it made me feel better as a teacher to hear others being put down. I was out there on my own, I had no sense of how I was doing in class, and the gossip gave me some connection. And I felt like it gave me status, knowing information, being on the inside."

Gossip Helps Us Learn and Bond

This can be especially important for a newcomer in a group. Hearing the latest gossip lets that person know they've been accepted and that they're trusted with the "privileged" information. But gossip isn't just for fun. It can be a source of very valuable information, too.

Says Jack Levin, Ph.D., professor of sociology and criminology at Boston's Northeastern University and coauthor of Gossip: The Inside Scoop:

"If you want to know about the kind of insurance coverage your employer offers, look in the company handbook. But if you want to know who to avoid, who the boss loves or loathes, who to go to when you need help, what it really takes to get a promotion or raise, and how much you can safely slack off, you're better off paying attention to the company grapevine."

Gossip also serves as a way to learn ground rules or acceptable group behaviors without having to come right out and discuss them. "If you move into a community and your neighbor tells you how the previous homeowner never disposed of his garbage properly, his gossip is letting you in on something else," says Rosnow.

You're likely to learn more about your office from gossiping at the water cooler than from your employee handbook.

Even kids' gossip, the type that's often unapologetically cruel ("Kyle smells" or "Sara eats paste," for instance) and said right to the child's face, serves a purpose. Says Levin:

"Cruel comments, but effective ones, because the target learns some important information. Namely, that he is not invisible to the rest of the world. The result? This vital piece of information helps him see he needs to change his offensive behavior."

Gossiping among adults takes on a bit of a different role and can at times be complimentary. "It's a way of saying that others are important," says Gary Allen Fine, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at the University of Georgia. "We gossip about people we care about. We don't bother talking about people who don't matter to us."

When Gossip Turns Ugly

Of course, not all gossip is good gossip. "Most of the time, the gossip spread between two people about a third absent friend is neutral news: a pregnancy, a promotion. But gabbing about buddies can also be a breach of the social structure," says Fine.

It's these "breaches of social structure," like when friend A tells friend B that friend C's house is a pig sty, that can cause feelings to get hurt, trust to be broken and relationships to fall apart.

Gossip can turn ugly when a person:

  • Tells a secret they've promised to keep

  • Spreads a negative rumor about someone else

  • Lies about something

  • Says something hurtful about a friend, colleague, family member, etc.

  • Rains on someone else's parade (spilling the news that your sister is pregnant, before she's let anyone know, for instance)

  • Does it with the intent of spite, revenge or malice

That said, before you wish away gossip from your life, consider the wise words of Oscar Wilde, and then feel free to share them with your nearest and dearest gossip buddies: "There is only one thing worse than being gossiped about, and that is not being gossiped about."

Recommended Reading

The Top Seven Signs That Someone is Lying to You

The Powerful Influencing Effect of People's Faces on Your Behavior


Chicago Tribune August 24, 2005 "This Just In: Gossip Serves a Purpose"

Psychology Today: The Real Slant on Gossip

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