The Hard Facts: Gossip Girl

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

“For centuries, gossip has been dismissed as salacious, idle chatter that can damage reputations and erode trust. But a new study from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests rumor-mongering can have positive outcomes such as helping us police bad behavior, prevent exploitation and lower stress.” (“Gossip Can Have Social and Psychological Benedits” ; 1/17/2012)

Admission: I like gossip. I shouldn’t, I know, but all my interests line up to thrive on it: I’m a talker. I’m fascinated by social relationships. And I’m super curious, sometimes about other people’s business. (It’s the journalist in me! I swear.)

As an adult, it’s not ideal to be keen on gossip. Yet there’s something about it that brings people together. In MWF Seeking BFF, I tell the story of when my coworker uncovered one of our consultants’ pay rate. The guy didn’t do much other than sit in on phone calls, and yet he was making at least twice as much as most of us. When we found his invoice at the printer—complete with his hourly rate—the women in my department, from assistants to senior staff, gathered to whisper and, yes, gossip about the finding. And you know what? It brought together a somewhat divided team. Only for a few hours, maybe, but every little bit counts.

According to this latest study, “gossip can be therapeutic. Volunteers’ heart rates increased when they witnessed someone behaving badly, but this increase was tempered when they were able to pass on the information to alert others.” The idea is that if your gossip is “prosocial,” meaning it’s used to warn or protect others from untrustworthy individuals, it can make you feel better both physically and emotionally. This prosocial gossip is in contrast to, say, US Weekly gossip, the “voyeuristic rumor-mongering about the ups and downs of such tabloid celebrities as Kim Kardashian and Charlie Sheen.”

Consider yourself a gossip? The authors of this study say that “people need not feel bad about revealing the vices of others, especially if it helps save someone from exploitation.” Of course, this is a slippery slope. It’s easy to convince yourself that the gossip you’re spreading is helping someone. Know that your boss has an alcohol problem? Spread the word! It might help her underlings feel better about themselves! Is an old classmate a binge eater? Well, that’ll definitely make her one-time nemesis happy.

And yet, these don’t seem to be productive uses of gossip, whether or not they make some innocent bystander feel better. To take the “good gossip” test, ask yourself one question: “By sharing this piece of information, will I protect someone from getting hurt?”

When it comes to gossip, I’m no saint. Not by a long shot. I get a great sense of relief when I share news that’s been nagging at me (even news that isn’t mine to share). It makes me feel like I’ve gotten something off my chest. But I’m going to try and use this one-question gossip test moving forward. It’s noble!

I’ll report back on my success.

In the meantime, let’s dish: Do you like gossip? Do you believe it can be beneficial?

Are you in Portland? If so, come listen to me read from MWF Seeking BFF tomorrow at the Powell’s at Cedar Hills Crossing! And tonight I’ll be at the Olympia Timberland Library. Hope to meet some of you Pacific Northwest readers!


Filed under The Search

2 responses to “The Hard Facts: Gossip Girl

  1. YEAH, CalBerk!

    But seriously.

    I try not to gossip, and make a point of staying away from gossip for gossip’s sake. However, I’d argue that there is a good kind of gossip, the kind that’s not intended to hurt but is born out of concern.

    Example: My friend is having a hard time right now because she’s been trying for a baby for years and hasn’t had any luck. She’s trying to be stiff upper lip about it and keep herself constantly busy, but she’s running herself into the ground. Plus, she’s basically cut everyone out of her life who is preggers or having a baby. Another friend and I had dinner one night, and she came up. We talked about our worry for her, for her frantic pace right now, and also for what would happen if either of us not pregnant before she did (both DINK’s right now). We don’t want to lose our friend, but talked about it because it’s a real possibility that we might. We both had seperate conversations with her that we relayed to each other during our conversation.

    So is this gossip? Maybe, the argument can be made either way. I think it’s way different from maliscious gossip, or gossip for gossip’s sake though, because of a few fundimental differences. One, we both knew what was going on in our friend’s life. We had minor details the other hadn’t heard, but our friend talked freely about her struggle to both of us, someimes together. Two: we were talking to discuss a shared fear and how to deal with it, and to figure out how to best be there for our friend, who we love. We left feeling like we could be united in supporting her. So even though she might be uncomfortable knowing we were discussing her without her there (and, really, who would be comfortable with that?) we did it out of love and for her betterment. Which I think makes it ok. But maybe I just like to justify things. 🙂

  2. Frume Sarah

    I actually try very hard to stay away from gossip. Though I found the research that you shared interesting, I am too committed to the teachings of my faith (Jewish) that truly warn us again and again about the detrimental effects of gossipmonging.

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