When done correctly, gossip builds strong relationships that are good for your mental and physical health.
You might think gossip is a cruel habit that’s best to avoid. Perhaps it brings up memories of mean high schoolers making fun of less popular kids. But what if gossip has a bright side too?
According to new research, it does. Rather than pit neighbors against each other, gossip can bring people together. Because of that, it might actually be good for you — and the friends you’re talking about.
Odds are, you’re already a bit of a gossip. Researchers estimate that in two-thirds of conversations, people talk about people who aren’t there, according to a paper from Frontiers in Psychology.
So to get the most out of your gossip, you want to be sure you’re doing it the right way.
The case for gossip
Mean-spirited gossip often gets the most attention, but plenty of gossip is neutral or even positive, says Eshin Jolly, Ph.D., a research fellow at Dartmouth College. “Gossip can be useful as a way to learn about the world [from other people],” he says.
That might be as simple as learning about the Brownsteins’ newly remodeled kitchen (it looks fantastic — you should meet their contractor!) or that Leonette slipped on a patch of ice outside the supermarket. (Be careful when you go shopping, okay?)
To examine the positive effect of gossip, Jolly and a colleague asked groups of people to play a game that required team cooperation to receive cash incentives. But the games were rigged so that some of the players couldn’t engage with the entire group. They could see or talk to only a small subset of other players.
The study was designed to mimic real-world social relationships. Neighbors and co-workers need to cooperate to get the best outcomes for their neighborhoods and companies. But they don’t always communicate with each other directly. They talk more frequently with the people they’re closest to, physically or otherwise.
During Jolly’s game-based study, an important trend emerged: The more a group of people gossiped among themselves about the behaviors of players they couldn’t communicate with directly, the better it performed as a team.
Gossip helped build trust among players, and it helped players become friendly. That led to better cooperation for the whole team.
How gossip is good for you
By building trust and relationships, gossip can serve as an antidote to loneliness. And that can be a big health boon.
Lonely people are more likely to develop dementia, frailty, and cardiovascular disease, according to a large review published in the journal PLOS One. And the paper’s authors noted that nearly 30% of people older than 60 experience loneliness at least some of the time.
So, if gossip can help you make friends, it might also help protect you from some of the worst aspects of loneliness. Making fun of a neighbor’s new haircut isn’t likely to lower your blood pressure. But building a shared world with people around you — one that includes real characters and stories — can help foster a rich social network.
How can you steer conversations toward productive, bonding gossip and avoid merely feeding the rumor mill? Here’s how to be a good gossiper.
Gossip tip #1: Don’t break someone’s confidence
Treating other people’s secrets as conversation fodder is cruel, even if you don’t mean for it to be. “Whether it’s malicious or careless, it could all have the same results,” says Sarah Wert, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Stanford University who has written about gossip.
So use good judgment before sharing someone else’s information. Just because someone didn’t explicitly say “this is a secret” doesn’t mean they expect it to become town gossip.
Gossip tip #2: Look for lessons
If you’re worried that the conversation is headed in a mean direction, ask whether there’s a greater purpose to the gossip. In other words, is this information useful?
The COVID-19 pandemic provides a useful lesson in gossiping with a purpose, says Wert. Information about which local bank has had an outbreak or which restaurants are enforcing mask policies could help you decide how to behave.
“During the pandemic, there was a lot of motivation to learn what other people were thinking and doing,” says Wert. In that case, positive gossip helped communities band together to enact new social norms.
Gossip tip #3: Imagine the person you’re talking about is listening
Gossip doesn’t have to be judgmental. One way to gossip kindly is to use it to express empathy, says Wert. “If you focused more on trying to understand a person’s behavior, that could be a way to keep it from crossing the line,” she says.
If a conversation veers toward the judgmental, steer it back in the right direction. Say something like: “I’m sure it’s hard for her,” or “You never know what goes on in a person’s marriage,” or “I can’t imagine what I would do if I were in that situation.”
Gossip tip #4: Share good news, too
Imagine the tall kid from the church choir rear-ending a fire truck the same week he came in first place at the high school debate tournament. Which news are you more excited to share?
Good gossipers are excited to share good news. (But seriously — how did that kid not see a giant fire truck?)
“Spreading negative information for no particular purpose may align more with our intuitions about malicious gossip,” says Jolly. “But it can be useful to consider whether the gossip you are engaging in serves some purpose that helps other people.”
Gossip tip #5: Gossip about yourself
If you’re starting to feel too gossipy, try shifting the focus to yourself. Share your own embarrassing moments and invite others to do the same.
This is a way to build meaningful friendships without talking only about other people, says Wert. “It’s powerful to talk about yourself and your feelings,” she says. “It has a bonding effect.”
And the next time you feel your ears burning, just know that someone is passing your story along to someone else. But don’t worry: If you’ve been kind with your gossip, odds are they’ll be kind with theirs too.
Related reading: More 65+ Adults Are Getting Roommates. Should You Join Them?
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