Whether you make a point not to talk behind other people’s backs or you subscribe to the belief that all news is fair game (and to Us Weekly), you’ve surely engaged in a little bit of gossip in your day. OK, a lot of gossip.While people think of gossip as spiteful and unproductive, experts believe it can have great emotional benefits. “When friends come together, gossiping can help with bonding,” explains Christine Weber, Ph.D., a Long Island, New York-based clinical psychologist. “It forms closer relationships with friends who share the same values, activities and interests.”Gossip can also boost social support where you didn’t expect it, says Nicole Zangara, a licensed clinical social worker and author of “Surviving Female Friendships: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.”
“When we learn information about a friend that we might not have known because they felt ashamed to tell us themselves—for example, they were recently diagnosed with a disease or are going through a separation—we can then reach out and be there for them.”Scientific research has demonstrated that gossip can be a useful tool in society, too. A study published in Psychological Science in January this year showed that gossip actually helps people identify cooperative—and uncooperative—members in a group.
Strangers were put in a room to play a computer game in which they could donate money to a communal pot and share the proceeds, or each person could selfishly refuse to contribute but reap the shared rewards nonetheless. If someone acted solely in their own self-interest, the other players could warn the next group of his or her actions, and that group could choose to vote the player out of the game.
The results revealed that the players were keen to exclude non-cooperative people who would exploit them. And people who’d been kicked out because of their reputations later joined in working with, instead of against, their game-mates. In the end, everybody wins.Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything you say about another person is useful and justifiable. Some gossip is just catty. Here’s how to tell the difference and master the art of good gossip.
Choose your gossip partners with the same discretion you’d select your cosmetics. “Only gossip with those in your closest circle,” warns Zangara. Don’t divluge to people who will spill the beans or who will react negatively to the topic. Limit your audience to people who need to know rather than who just want to know.
Use gossip for good:
“When you gossip for social bonding, share information that uplifts and inspires people,” advises Jill Spiegel, a motivation coach with more than 20 years of experience. If a colleague is having a hard time, rather than fueling the water-cooler whispers, spin the chatter toward something positive. For example: “Joan looks so sad and worried. Let’s take her out to lunch to lift her spirits.”Maybe someone’s body odor problem is becoming talk of the town. Weber suggests you should just be upfront with the target of the gossip in such cases. “Approaching the individual in an appropriate way can serve to alleviate an overall problem and eliminate the gossip associated with it,” suggests Weber.
Filter fact from fiction…
“Positive gossip involves sharing facts over rumor,” says Spiegel. Confirm a rumor before you spread it. And remember that things we hear through the grapevine may only give one side of the story, so try and get the full scoop. “Try to imagine how the target of the gossip would convey that information from their point of view,” says Beverly Flaxington, a certified professional behavioral analyst and author of “Understanding Other People: The Five Secrets to Human Behavior.”
…and fact from feeling.
While you can share your opinion about a situation, exert caution in how you present it. Zangara points out that it’s hard to separate your interpretation of an event with the event itself. “When we gossip about something happening in another friend’s life—maybe she’s moving or going through a divorce—we share what we’re feeling about it,” says Zangara. “There is definitely a fine line of talking about a friend and then saying negative, rude things about her.”
Know when to zip it.
A good gossiper will know when to keep mum about something even if it is true and interesting. “Speaking about a negative event such as being arrested may not be considered positive gossip and could cause harm,” says Weber Flaxington advises to run the intention test before you spread the word. “If you’re passing gossip to be ‘in’ or hurtful, check your motive,” she says.
MORE: The Science of Schadenfruede—Why We Get Pleasure From Others’ Pain