Good News about Gossip
Gossip has a bad reputation. Labeling someone’s conversation as “gossip” generally brings up the sense that they’re doing something wrong or even malicious. A Google search of “gossip quotes” supports the notion that people think that those who gossip are immoral and unintelligent:
“Rumors are carried by haters, spread by fools, and accepted by idiots.”
“Gossip dies when it enters the ears of the wise.”
However, most gossip research reveals that gossiping is a normal behavior. In fact, gossip is nearly 14% of daily conversation, according to a study that my colleague, Alex Karan, and I recently published. What’s more, gossip can foster trust and closeness among friends, and can provide moral guidelines for how we should behave.
Despite multiple studies that reveal an upside to gossip, negative opinions about gossip are common. This was particularly striking to me after a presentation I gave about some of my research. In my presentation, I explained that the academic definition of gossip is simply that you’re talking about someone who isn’t present. I also told the audience that gossip is very common, that usually doesn’t portray the person being discussed negatively, and that it can serve positive functions.
After I finished, people mostly asked me about what counts as gossip, and some of the questions included whether talking about the U.S. President, discussing a letter of recommendation with a colleague, or discussing someone else’s health (with that person’s permission) counted as gossip. My answer to all of them was “yes,” but I had the sense that inherent in all of their questions was stigma surrounding the word “gossip.” Despite having just sat through my presentation, audience members were still asking questions that seemed to be seeking permission to not call their behavior “gossip.”
But why should people care about stigma surrounding gossip? One reason is that the stigma can be damaging when people view gossip in terms of stereotypes. For example, a popular belief is that women gossip more than men, and labeling women’s conversation as gossip can belittle what women have to say—in the workplace and social settings.
In our study, we actually found little evidence to support the notion that women “dish the dirt” more than men. We did find that women gossiped neutrally more than men, but there was no solid evidence that women gossiped negatively or positively more than men do.
In fact, most instances of gossip we obtained in our study were pretty boring. We directly sampled gossiping in the everyday lives of 467 research participants using a recording method called the EAR. The EAR—which stands for Electronically Activated Recorder—randomly records short sound bites as people go about their daily lives so that we could get a large, representative selection of everyday gossip for analysis. (For more information on the EAR, click here https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5434514/ and here https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1948550617699253?journalCode=sppa).
In trying to find examples from these sound files for my presentation, I had trouble finding anything very interesting—even when searching sound clips of gossip that we had rated as negative, which were only 15.1% of the gossip in our study. Without reading all of the 4,003 gossip transcripts from the study, I did the best I could and found this example of gossip from one of our study participants:
“Who ends up doing all the cooking and cleaning and the cleaning up and then putting things away and putting it all up? And she is like we have to be there on time. I don’t care what the other, the other families do. And we were always the only ones. And she is like… it is going to be different. And I'm like it is never different. They are never on time they always show up like 10 minutes before dinner. They eat the food and leave and then they leave everybody else to clean it up.”
This is—perhaps disappointingly—not terribly salacious or juicy gossip. The revelation here is that even when people gossip negatively, most of what they say is pretty mundane. In fact, 74.3% of all the gossip samples we obtained in this study was neutral—neither positively or negatively evaluative about the person who was being discussed. Neutral gossip included discussions such as this:
“She went to a movie yesterday and she's going to go tomorrow and we're going to go to a performance tomorrow night down at the University so anyways so. But yup she's trying to catch up on the movies and stay current with them and catch some of the old ones as they come up.”
Some gossip can even be positive. In fact, 9.4% of the episodes of gossip recorded in our study were positive. These were often compliments about someone’s appearance or achievement. For example, “I’m not sure if she was a model or something, but I mean, she was very beautiful.”
Researchers also point out another upside to gossip—it serves a moral function. Gossip can teach people about what behavior is considered right and wrong in their culture, and it can also serve as a sort of punishment for bad behavior. When we hear people gossip about others, we learn how they judge others’ behaviors. And, we also know that if we behave in unethical or immoral ways, others are likely to talk about us behind our backs. So even when people spread negative gossip, this can serve important functions.
Gossip also helps people share helpful information about others. Imagine you are discussing someone you’re considering dating, and your friend tells you about that person’s long history of cheating. This would serve as a warning to you that you might want to reconsider entering a relationship with that person. It would also be a warning to potential cheaters that they might not want to ruin their reputation via gossip.
In short, gossip is a ubiquitous behavior that can serve important functions. Feel free to spread the good news about gossip!
For Further Reading
Robbins, M. L., & Karan, A. (2019). Who gossips and how in everyday life? Social Psychological and Personality Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550619837000
Baumeister, R. F., Zhang, L., & Vohs, K. D. (2004). Gossip as cultural learning. Review of General Psychology, 8(2), 111–121. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1089-26184.108.40.206
Bosson, J. K., Johnson, A. B., Niederhoffer, K., & Swann, W. B. (2006). Interpersonal chemistry through negativity: Bonding by sharing negative attitudes about others. Personal Relationships, 13(2), 135–150. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.2006.00109.x
Grosser, T. J., Lopez-Kidwell, V., & Labianca, G. (2010). A Social Network Analysis of Positive and Negative Gossip in Organizational Life. Group & Organization Management, 35(2), 177–212. https://doi.org/10.1177/1059601109360391
Megan Robins is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside.
This blog is a revised version of a post that appeared originally on Psychologytoday.com.