Photo: Ben White
Gossip is like the junk food of communication. We know that it is bad and unhealthy, but it’s hard to resist its draw. It is rude and unkind, and of course it’s always terrifying to think that something you said could get back to the person you were gossiping about.
Knowing all of its downsides, why is gossip still so hard to resist?
The ways gossip brings us together
Gossip Creates Stronger Bonds
For many of us, one major reason that gossip feels irresistible is that it was a primary way that we learned to bond with others. Men tend to bond by engaging in a shared activity. Women often bond verbally via conversation. Many grow up hearing their parents, grandparents, and other family members talk about one another behind their backs. Gossip, therefore, feels familiar, and any familiar habit is hard to break.
Gossip is a Team Sport
Gossip also allows people to feel that they are on the same team against a common “enemy.” Gossip puts you and your conversational partner on one side, and the unlucky person who is being gossiped about on the other side. This increases feelings of connection with a friend, or a potential friend, because both of you bond over looking down on someone else.
The social psychology term for this is “in-group–out-group bias,” where just because you are in a certain group or on a certain side, you start to feel more of an affinity for your own group members, as well as feeling hostility towards members of another group.
Gossip Helps Us Express Emotions and Feel Better About Ourselves
Gossip has another advantage for people who find it difficult to express emotions; you don’t have to be vulnerable with your conversational partners about your own feelings or weaknesses if you direct the conversation toward the topic of other people. For people that find it threatening or feel exposed by going too “deep” in a conversation, gossip is an easy way to avoid looking inward while still carrying on a conversation with a friend.
A final short-term benefit of gossip is that is makes you feel better about your own circumstances, especially circumstances that you feel anxious or insecure about. Condescending or judging another person’s romantic relationship, for instance, can make you temporarily feel more secure in your own relationship. You may think, “My boyfriend may be emotionally distant, but at least he is physically faithful to me.” Of course, this doesn’t help your own relationship in the long run, but it can be a quick way to avoid thinking too deeply about issues that make you feel upset.
What about the negative aspects of gossip?
The downsides to gossiping far outweigh the positives, which most people realize. Gossiping feels like a guilty pleasure at best, and a compulsion at worst.
How to Break out of the Gossip Cycle
If you want to break the gossip habit, it is important to first think deeply about why you gossip, and which of the above reasons resonates with you most. You need to discover what role gossip plays in your life, both interpersonally (between you and other people; e.g., facilitating bonding when you’re socially anxious) and intrapsychically (within yourself; e.g., making you feel better about issues that you’re insecure about).
Replacing Gossip with Healthier Behaviors
Once you’ve introspected about the function of gossip, you can figure out how to replace gossip with other, healthier behaviors. For example, if you are insecure about your weight and therefore recognize that you take any opportunity to gossip about others’ weight gain or style choices, you need to focus more directly on your own body image issues. Therapy can help with this, as well as taking the initiative to choose behaviors that fall more in line with your goals, such as starting to exercise, or meeting with a nutritionist.
In terms of bonding, there are many other ways to bond with potential friends, or to deepen your connection with existing friends, besides gossiping. Often, conversations can grow a lot more intimate if we focus on sharing our own feelings and insecurities, rather than talking about other people. Friends will empathize or share their own emotions in response, which can deepen a friendship much more than gossiping.
Be confident in yourself, and the rest falls into place
Spending too much time gossiping is a sign that you may need to examine your life more closely. Becoming more confident in yourself and your choices will allow you to feel stronger and to live a more authentic life. When you are happier with yourself, you may find that gossip seems much less appealing, and it can become a lot easier to be kind and nonjudgmental of others.