Self Improvement — 18 January 2004
Is gossip beneficial or is it harmful?

Gossip, the practice of sharing information about other people’s lives, is familiar to all of us. We enjoy this form of idle talk and are often unaware of its harm.

The origins of gossip date to early man. Primitive societies used negative information to discredit the reputation of their rivals and defeat them. In old English gossip evolved from “god-sibb”, referring to a close female friend present at the birth of a child, to whom she will assume the role of a godparent. This woman was the confidant and attentive listener to the new mother. Later, the term evolved to describe friends’ intimate sharing of personal information. It further expanded to the current use of evaluative talk about a third party in his or her absence.

If your mother tells you that gossiping is bad, she is right.
If researchers inform you that gossip is inevitable and extremely beneficial, they too are right. The distinction is between “good” and “bad” gossip. As psychologist James Lynch puts it: “Human dialogue can be a great healer or a great destroyer.”

In my opinion, there should be two separate words to connote spreading information in the absence of those about whom we speak.
“Gossip” should be reserved for the negative transmission of stories that aim at maligning one’s character, integrity, behavior and essence. “Godspeak” could serve as the term used for dispensing positive, admiring, loving and positive information about others.

The benefits of gossip described by the researchers suggest that exchanging information between people is beneficial for creating a healthy connection, building social norms for acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and improving society.

Similarly, gossip has its merits in the corporate culture. A gossip researcher, Professor Frank McAndrew, says; “If people are talking about good things others do, we want to emulate that good behavior. It is a nice way of socially controlling people.” When a company faces bad times, gossip about the future of the employees offers a reduction of fear and uncertainty and creates camaraderie.
Bad gossip, the negative talk about other people’s lives is agreed to be destructive. Disappointingly enough the researchers spend little time disavowing this form of malice.

Some of the reasons that people engage in negative gossip include: The desire for bonding, use of idle time, denial of one’s problems, affirmation of one’s worth by comparisons with others, as well as for hurting others.

Bonding with another individual feel pleasurable, even when it is done at the expense of a third party. It is assumed that those who unite in their criticism of a third party are superior to the berated person. “We think that what she did is outrageous. We would never do anything like this to anyone”. The false illusion of superiority temporarily elevates the level of self-esteem of the “gossippers”. For those who use comparative data to create a better self-esteem, the practice of discounting others becomes an unfortunate habit.

Another use of gossip for emotional connection is the divulging of confidential information. If someone told us a secret we share it with another person to gain the listener’s friendship while BETRAYING the holder of the secret. Some people ask the listener to promise not to further relate the secret (meaning- pass the information to one person at a time). And thus begins the chain of evil violation of the original party.

Gossip also serves as a non-demanding way of engaging in idle talk. It is an activity to pass the time with someone that requires no strain on the brain needed for creating substantive exchanges. We can just pass judgements on what the neighbors are doing as a form of entertainment.

For some people gossip is a way to avoid dealing with their own problems by concentrating on how poorly others solve theirs. It is a way to deflect criticism or even appreciation from others. Once the energy is placed on what others should do better, its mere wisdom frees us from becoming accountable for ourselves.

Some people use gossip with intended malice to harm others. This is a most despicable behavior that is never justified.

Ancient Eastern Indian mythology considers gossip a form of mental illness. Religions abhor and disallow it. Psychoanalysts report that gossip is harmful to the individual and creates many emotional difficulties such as suspiciousness, fear, mistrust and depression. Gossip is toxic to one’s soul and destroys friendships and relationships.

Yet, our culture has an extensive gossip industry. Some magazines, television programs, and newspapers shamelessly brag about their “juicy” gossip. The public relishes every morsel of information regarding celebrities. The need to know about the “rich and famous” stems from our desire to feel better about our lot in life. We can emulate the stars’ behavior when it is inspiring and elevate ourselves when we see their misery and misdeeds.

Feeling “better than or “less than” other people is a tragic way to assess one’s worth. Self-esteem must come from within the individual based on one’s character and actions that lead to self-respect.

To deal with gossip better:

  • Create healthy ways of connecting with others that do not require negative talk about a third party.
  • When you are told about another person, ask for verification of the information. Trusting that what is said is true without challenging its’ veracity, makes you a partner in perpetuating gossip.
  • If you hear negative talk- refuse to listen and politely attempt to stop the speaker.
  • Ask the “gossipper” to tell you what positive things he may relate about the individual he is criticizing.
  • When you are entrusted with a secret – feel honored and never repeat it to anyone. Repeating confidences is like stealing one’s dignity.
  • Feel free to share positive gossip with others provided that your facts are correct.
  • As enjoyable as it may be to bond with someone temporarily through gossip, the damage to all three parties is immeasurable. Trade the momentary temptation for gossip in favor of gaining a wholesome sense of self-respect.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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