The Hard Facts: Did You Hear About Rachel?!?

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I reveal the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“After criticizing other people, gossipers’ positive emotions were reduced by 16 percent and negative emotions increased 34 percent.” (“Is Gossip Good for You,” New York Times, 10/8/2010)

I love to gossip. I do. I don’t want to love to gossip, but given how much I engage in the activity, reason would have that I must enjoy it.

According to the latest research, some gossip has positive effects. When you gab with a girlfriend about how great someone else is, and shower the unknowing party in compliments, positive emotions are raised 3 percent, negative emotions are reduced 6 percent, and self-esteem is raised 5 percent.

But, seriously, how often do people engage in complimentary gossip?

If what I know is reality than the majority of time people engage in gossip they’re not saying anything they’d want to share with the group.

The examples of “positive gossip” in this study are sayings like “So-and-so’s husband is adorable” instead of “she married that lout?”

I’ve certainly shared those exchanges, musing over how cute someone’s baby is or what a fabulous catch her husband was. But I’m not sure that actually qualifies as gossip. According to my dictionary, gossip is “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.”

So, “her husband is adorable” is not gossip. “I hear her husband’s a cheater,” is.

Despite getting constantly caught up in the rumor mill, I buy the research that says our negative emotions increase by more than a third when we trash talk. No matter how much I hope to vent or get something off my chest, I always feel worse after a bitchfest. Criticizing someone else isn’t going to change my own circumstances, after all. It’s not freeing; It’s exhausting. And in the end, above all else, it makes me feel like an ass.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess this is true of more people than just myself. And yet we keep it up. We feel worse after spreading negative gossip, but most of us can’t help it. We engage. Maybe not often (if you’re a better person than I), but it’s the rare person who can swear off the dish altogether. Why?

The answer lies in this sentence of the aforementioned New York Times article: “Whether kind or cruel, gossip was associated with a greater sense of social support for the perpetuator.” The mere act of gossiping—regardless of the content—makes us feel more connected. We get to exchange information with another party, and the mere act of this exchange—especially the exchange of gossip, which is often billed as “secret” even though everyone’s talking about it—makes us feel like part of the in group. We’re privy to something exclusive. We belong.

Moral of the story: Gossip is bad but we do it anyway. (Side note: The Happiness Project’s Gretchen Rubin just posted an interesting video about her attempt to stop gossiping.) Do you gossip? Are you more of a positive or negative gossiper? Why is gossip so addictive, when it usually makes us feel bad about ourselves and does nothing to really strengthen our friendships? Come on, be honest. No judgment here!


Filed under The Hard Facts

10 responses to “The Hard Facts: Did You Hear About Rachel?!?

  1. Alison

    Here’s what I’ve noticed about gossip. I still talk about people as much as I always have but I definitely spend more time talking about good things about other people (how smart, lovely, clever, accomplished etc). I’m not perfect, so there are definitely still the more mean spirited conversations, but overall I find the balance is moving towards more nice chitchat than mean. Second, even where the conversation is dominated by less than nice stuff, it’s generally out of my own genuine human fascination with the underlying issues (lame boyfriend, bad taste/judgment, etc) than about the person who it applies to. So I think it’s a combination of growing up, being more mature, and finally, having the luxury of surrounding myself with people I like. That’s the beauty of getting older: you can cut out the bad eggs.

  2. Julia

    In business, gossip can be helpful. Effective leaders often leak ideas they are unsure will be embraced by people working more than one level below them just for the feedback. Because frankly, a leader can “introduce” something, but if the established company culture is in a different direction then nothing the leader does can force its implementation in the way in which it was intended.

    Also, smart employees should listen to gossip if they value their jobs, and I don’t just mean, “OMG, did you hear the latest about Brad and Angelina?” I mean, “The CEO is planning to install a keycard system so he will know about every minute you are not at your desk.”

    Total honesty: I do have a love-hate relationship with gossip. And I think everyone has been on the receiving end of a gossip over-share where a gossip fest turns into “My husband has been sleeping on the couch for the last 3 months” — between new co-workers. It’s a balance of how much to share, and when to share it. And with whom to share as well.

  3. Debbi

    I ended a female friendship because I found myself getting sucked in to gossiping about everyone-including people I considered friends. I didn’t realize until after the friendship ended how much better I felt, and I realized that if she was gossiping with me about everyone, she must have been gossiping ABOUT me to others.

  4. Lorrie Paige

    Well said Debbi.

    I gossip plenty about celebrities/famous people I don’t know. I would rarely gossip about people I care about, and getting more spiritual with Buddhist teachings and my own personal spiritual religious beliefs, both teaching it’s not a good thing to gossip, I really wouldn’t talk bad about people I know and love.

    I sometimes constructively criticize others, but would say that to the one being criticized to their face first before discussing the issue with others.

    Also, similar to this is keeping a secret. I’d make a good friend because I am totally into keeping secrets, and this is why: I am nosy. And you know what would get people to tell you their most deepest, darkest secrets? If you are known to keep your mouth shut and not to gossip about it (even if I break up with a friend, I still keep their secret out of honor).

    If you can keep a secret, more people will reveal more personal things about themselves to you, and boy do I know doozies!

  5. Fanfan

    You know.. you assumed that you enjoyed gossiping because you do it a lot… it may not be the most valid assumption out there.
    I have read studies suggesting that heavy smokers usually don’t enjoy smoking at all after they got addicted. The reason they smoke was because of negative reinforcement—- removing something unpleasant, the crave, instead of gaining something pleasant.

  6. Robin

    I think it’s easy to fall into gossiping, but I do my best to steer the conversation away from talking about other people. It makes me feel yucky, and I would rather hear the person I’m actually with at that moment talk about what they’ve been up to.

    I have known people who are serious gossipers, and it always bothered me that I knew all these intimate details about friends of friends that I hardly knew otherwise.

  7. Yeah, I’ll dish about celebs but tend to try to shut my trap where people I know well are concerned. Mainly because our town isn’t that big! Stuff gets around fast.

    And I’m with you–I don’t really think positive gossip is gossip?

  8. I have policy about gossiping. If I am not comfortable repeating something to someone’s face, then I don’t say it behind their back. Keeps my cowardly nastiness in check and it makes me remember what I am saying may hurt an actual person.

  9. Oh, gossip. My favorite topic. A few years ago I realized I was friends with people who said terrible things about other people. I am ashamed to admit that is actually how we bonded and came to be good friends. It took me a long time to realize they were probably doing the same thing about me. I told myself that if I didn’t want people to talk smack about me then I better stop doing it myself. Of course I am human and VERY opinionated so my judgments haven’t stopped completely. But I don’t judge so quickly anymore and I try do it a lot less. I have become a more compassionate person since I have been sick. I realized that you can’t judge people when you don’t know their story. You never know the pain they are carrying or burdens that they suffer unless you have been in their shoes. Even then you don’t even have the right. I try to keep these things in mind and it helps.

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