The Truth Behind Gossiping

“What some call gossiping, I call relating!”

I used to say there’s a fine line between gossiping and sharing your story, and now I think of the word “gossip” as a naughty word for something that’s more along the lines of speaking your truth in an exchange where two or more people are finding relativity, understanding, and comfort by hearing and sharing their own stories. There’s a sense of comradery that comes with joining a community or group with similar views, experiences, and encouraging words. Multiple people fighting for the same reasons in different but similar ways. No, I don’t call it gossiping, I call it relating.

How gossip comes about

It doesn’t just fall out of my mouth in the middle of a casual conversation, there’s a time and a place for it. But I share my story to anyone who will listen, those who could relate, hopefully finding some comfort in the fact that they aren’t alone on this journey. Sometimes the casual conversation ends up being very detailed accounts of our journey, other times we just relate and brush over the surface.

I find it’s often something that triggers me, and my automatic defense is a plethora of information and justification about my personal situation and experiences. I guess that happens mostly because I was silenced and felt so incapable of being vulnerable due to legal ramifications and HCBM’s gigantic ego. Two years later, I now refuse to be silenced. I lived it, it’s my story I’m telling, if she doesn’t like it then history shouldn’t have gone down like that and the alienating and narcissistic abuse that I speak out about – which is very real for thousands of others in my same position as stepmother and biomother – shouldn’t have happened and shouldn’t continue. I refuse to be made to feel as if I don’t have a voice anymore, or that I cannot share my story, whether it be due to need for comfort and understanding or to spread awareness so that others don’t feel so alone in their journey. ❤ We are allowed to share our stories! #stepmomstrong

-Avid Follower of @mamabearblendedfamilysupport on Instagram

I can relate to those feeling like they were kept from telling their truth, or silenced by those who were painted differently than they wish to appear to others. I know what it’s like to have written word held against me, and yet I haven’t lost my voice. I reigned it in for a few years, and I watched what I said publicly, but it is my story and I deserve to tell it just as everyone else has the right to tell theirs. Coming to that mindset and conclusion took a very long time. Why? Because my story happens to include other parents, and they didn’t like being a villain in my story, regardless of their actions proving otherwise.

“All humans partake in some form, despite the age-old adage, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all” (Gottfried, S., 2019).

What is gossip?

“Gossip is defined as talking about and evaluating someone when they aren’t there” (The Conversation, 2017). When we gossip it helps us to learn about the rules of behavior in social groups, and it allows us to get closer together by learning important information without talking to every group member (The Conversation, 2017). One might even go so far as to say that a certain amount of gossip is productive in most settings.

The difference between gossip and good old interaction is the negative connotation that gossip has. Throughout time, people have believed being a gossip doesn’t bring warm fuzzies to the individuals who engage. Regardless of age, those who gossip are usually viewed as unlikeable, untrustworthy and weak. “There is also evidence that gossiping may make us feel bad about ourselves, regardless of whether what we have said is nasty or nice” (The Conversation, 2017).

The truth of the matter is, “whether it’s workplace chatter, the sharing of family news or group texts between friends, it’s inevitable that everyone who talks, well, talks about other people. In fact, a 1993 observational study found that male participants spent 55% of conversation time and female participants spent 67% conversation time on “the discussion of socially relevant topics” (Gottfried, S., 2019).

Although people tend to think of gossip as synonymous with malicious rumors, put downs, or the breathless propagation of a tabloid schoop, researchers often define it more broadly: as “talking about people who aren’t present,” says Megan Robbins, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. “It’s something that comes very naturally to us” – an integral part of conversation, information sharing and even community building (Gottfried, S., 2019).

David Ludden, professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College and the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach, says “It’s not necessarily negative; It can be positive or neutral” (Gottfried, S., 2019).

In a 2019 meta-analysis published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, Robbins and a colleague found that, of the 52 minutes a day on average the 467 subjects spent gossiping, three-quarters of that gossip was actually neutral. “One subject for example, spoke about someone who was watching a lot of movies to stay current. It was kind of boring, not salacious and negative at all” (Gottfried, S., 2019). Just a small portion of the conversations analyzed – around 15% – was deemed negative gossip. A smaller portion – 9% – was attributed to positive gossip. So while it is true people can spend significant amounts of time talking about peers, oftentimes that chatter is benign (Gottfried, S., 2019).

Group of young people men and women whispering each other in the ear. Word of mouth concept

So Why Do People Gossip?

Researchers like Evolutionary psychologist Robi Dunbar, pioneer, argue that gossip helped our ancestors survive. Comparing gossip to gossip as a means of bonding, Dunbar suggests we have evolved from picking fleas off each other to talking. “Gossip comes in, because chit-chat is mostly talking about other people and conveying social information” (Gottfried, S., 2019). This gossip allows humans the ability to spread valuable information to very large social networks. “Were we not able to engage in discussions of these [social and personal] issues, we would not be able to sustain the kinds of societies that we do,” Dunbar explained in a 2003 paper published in the Review of General Psychology. “Gossip in this broad sense plays a number of different roles in the maintenance of socially functional groups throughout time” (Gottfried, S., 2019).

Some scholars view gossip as evidence of cultural learning, offering teachable moments and providing people with examples of what’s socially acceptable – and what’s not. For example, if there’s someone who cheats and lies a lot in a community or social circle and people start to talk about that person in negative ways, the collective criticism should warn others of the consequences of cheating and lying. As word near-inevitably trickles back to the source of said gossip, it can “serve to keep people in check, morally speaking,” Robins adds (Gottfried, S., 2019).

What happens physiologically when people gossip?

In a 2015 study published in Social Neuroscience, scientists looked at a brain imaging of men and women as they heard positive and negative gossip about themselves, their best friends and celebrities. People hearing gossip – good and bad – about themselves, as well as negative gossip in general showed more activity in the prefrontal cortex of their brains, which is key to our ability to navigate complex social behaviors” (Gottfried, S., 2019).

This activity showed the subjects responded to the gossip and its insight. It also found that subjects seemed to be amused or entertained by salacious celebrity scandals, and not surprisingly, individuals were happier to hear positive gossip about themselves and more irked by hearing negative gossip about themselves as opposed to gossip about others.

“In order to gossip you need to feel close to people” -Stacy Torres

So, Can gossip be good for you?

“People are really resistant to thinking about gossip as anything but a bad behavior,” says Robbins. And Feinberg notes that there are some types of gossip that should be avoided, such as gossip that is purely harmful and serves. no greater purpose – like mean comments about someone’s looks. In such a scenario, “you’re not learning anything,” Robbins adds. “No one is benefiting” (Gottfried, S., 2019).

In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “when subjects heard about another person’s anti-social behavior or an injustice, their heart rates increased. When they were able to actively gossip about the person, or the situation, on the other hand, it soothed them and brought their heart rates down. The act of gossiping, Feinberg explains, “helps calm the body” (Gottfried, S., 2019).

Gossiping also says something about the relationships people have with each other. “In order to gossip, you need to feel close to people,” says Stacy Torres, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied gossip in older adults. “There’s an intimacy” to sharing experiences and feeling like you’re on the same page about others. Torres’ research has found that gossip can stave off loneliness, while other studies have found it can facilitate bonding and closeness and serve as a form of entertainment (Gottfried, S., 2019).

So, keep on talking. And when your conversation turns to gossip, remember some good can come of it – with the right intentions, of course.

Four ways to make gossip less toxic

Keep it Secret – Clearly there are negative consequences if you learn you’ve been the target of gossip. Avoiding an awkward confrontation with the person who has been transgressed is optimal to continue about as a valued member of the group. If we want gossip to oil the wheels of social interaction, but not cause conflict and upset, we need to be discrete (The Conversation, 2017).

Make it Useful – If the listener feels that you are attempting to help the group when you share the gossip, they can be much more forgiving. For example, in a study where a gossiper shared information about a cheating student, the gossiper was only disliked when they were sharing this information for selfish reasons. When the gossip was expressed in a way which focused on fairness for the whole student group, it was the cheater who was disliked, not the gossiper (The Conversation, 2017).

“Ensuring that gossip is useful can also help to alleviate the negative feelings gossipers have when they share gossip. In a study where a participant saw another person cheating, it made the participant uncomfortable knowing about the cheat. But they felt better when they were able to warn the other participants about the cheat’s bad behavior” (The Conversation, 2017).

Don’t tell lies– Gossip which isn’t true doesn’t offer the same social learning benefits as that which is true. Gossiping about lies has obvious possible backlash from those who are on the receiving end of the gossip, as there is always a chance that the truth comes out. Lying also produces negative effects for the individual gossiping about lies. In short, if you’re going to gossip, keep it productive and honest.

Connect with your listener– “Effective gossip is not just about what you say, or about whom. It is also about how you say it. Of course, you can make the benefits of the gossip clear to your listener by clearly explaining why you have shared the information. But sharing particularly emotional reactions to the information may help you connect with your listener and avoid negative reactions. When we share emotional reactions to others with someone, they feel closer to us, especially when they agree with the reaction we share. Sharing how you feel may encourage the listener to react more favourably to your gossiping behavior.

So the next time you need to share gossip, stop and ask yourself whether the information will stay secret, and whether it’s useful. Don’t be afraid to share your story or your emotions with your listener. Hopefully you’re able to engage in “good gossip” and reap the social rewards which come with it!

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References:

The Coversation: The science of gossip: four ways to make it less toxic, March 30, 2017, https://theconversation.com/the-science-of-gossip-four-ways-to-make-it-less-toxic-75318

Gottfried, S., 2019, TIME: The Science Behind Why People Gossip –And When It Can Be a Good Thing, https://time.com/5680457/why-do-people-gossip/

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