– Farzana Suri, Victory Coach
When you meet a friend and after the pleasantries are done with, have you ever asked, “So, what’s new?” Some would argue that you were interested in the developments in the life of your friend and, some would say it was a way to add some spice into the conversation; to know something that no one knows. Be it as it may, it is called gossip. School education taught you that gossip is ‘bad’.
Let’s take a pause here. Gossip is speaking about someone who is not in your presence at the time of the conversation. Evolutionary psychologist, Robin Dunbar first pioneered this idea that gossip is borrowed from the apes. Apes used grooming time to not just pick lice and dirt from one another but to bond with each other. That innocuous chit-chat to share social information about others is called gossip. Unlike primates who lived in small groups, humans lived in larger groups and it was hard to keep track of what everybody was up to just by observing them. And so, language came about and with that the ability to know what other people have been doing, even if we weren’t there to see it ourselves.
Humans, are born gossipers. In fact, we began to gossip the day we learned to speak, coherently. It’s how we engage in meaningful conversations to build relationships. Contrary to what you may think, gossip is not the attempt to always humiliate people and bring them down. Research states that gossip is a way to understand cultural behaviour, build lasting relationships with one and other, provide people examples of what is and what isn’t socially acceptable, encourage camaraderie, cooperation, and assess their own success and social standing. Life’s learnings come from gossip.
According to Dunbar, “by hearing about the misadventures of others, we may not have to endure costs to ourselves,” and repeat the mistake. Gossip or knowledge-sharing about people flouting norms would be educational and important to say the least. The negativity bias makes negative stories stick better in the mind than the positive ones.
When people hear gossip about themselves, be it good or bad, it displays increased activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain – the part which enables us to handle and navigate complex social behaviour better.
So, how bad or good is gossip?
First, let’s understand the types of gossip. Gossip can be positive, negative, or neutral.
Positive Gossip: sharing or hearing good things about people that could inspire you to do better. It leaves behind a learning. It can change the perception people have about others, and should one need to repeat it in front of the person being talked about, you wouldn’t hesitate. It is emotionally uplifting and leaves you with joy. To share an example, if you move into a new home and your neighbour shares how the homeowner from the floor above holds wild, noisy parties every Saturday, she is providing you useful information. In a workplace, your colleague could be telling you why a person in your department deserved the promotion or new project.
Neutral Gossip: This is purely observational and general form of gossip for rapport building. It involves people who enjoy talking about themselves as well people in their lives; making it easier to engage in conversations. Neutral gossip occurs when you are engaged in a conversation with one other person. Meeting someone for the first time and speaking about your work or your day, prompts the other person to share about theirs as well. This could then lead to talking about your family or place of work, etc.
Negative Gossip: Sharing reputational information with the intent to damage another person is negative gossip. When conversations are malicious and based on half-truths, to damage the standing and credibility of others due to one’s own lack of confidence; it has the power to damage a person’s career and perhaps destroy someone’s life, too. Relationships have ended and people have lost their jobs and reputation due to negative gossip. From a business perspective, it slows productivity and is divisive for teams. For e.g. sharing information about your boss’s spouse being given a job due to nepotism or speaking ill about a friend’s radical love life.
It’s interesting to note that an average person, gossips approximately 52 minutes a day, most of which is spent sharing details that are, boring and banal. Out of this, only 15 percent is negative gossip. While women are often accused of gossip, men gossip just as much. Youngsters according to a study, are more likely to indulge in negative gossip than older people and, the extrovert gossip more than introverts. A point to note is that one’s socio-economic and education do not dictate, how much a person may gossip. To quote the author, Joseph Conrad, “Gossip is what no one claims to like, but everybody enjoys.”
Gossip has its advantages. The positive and neutral gossip, I mean.
- It helps you keep in touch and act in a way that may be of help to other people.
- It allows you to compare yourself with others and improve aspects of your life and behaviour. It inspires you to see what’s missing and acquire new ways of doing things. Someone’s experience with victory or failure can help you assess and re-evaluate your life or career path.
- As informational exchange, it teaches you to learn from the experience of others through stories. Someone’s success story can motivate you to work harder towards your goal.
- It promotes cooperation and working in harmony.
- Positive gossip boosts self-esteem and encourages you to keep doing good.
- Positive gossip fills you with joy, improves your mood and is infectious.
To know the difference between positive and negative gossip, do the Socrates Test – The Triple Filter Test. Socrates, the Greek philosopher met a man who wanted to share some exciting gossip about another friend. However, before he could speak, Socrates said he wanted to ask him three questions. The man agreed. Socrates asked, “First tell me, is what you’re about to tell me, the truth?” The man wasn’t sure. Socrates continued, “Okay, is it kind?” The man said it wasn’t. Socrates asked, “Last question, does it have some usefulness?” The man shook his head. Socrates told him, “If what you’re about to tell me is neither kind nor useful and you’re not even sure if it’s true, why would you tell me? And, he walked away.
There’s an interesting Korean proverb which goes thus, “Words have no wings but they can fly a thousand miles.” Gossip can do good when it teaches, inspires and spreads joy.