The Social Skill of Gossiping

Smugly looking down from the moral high ground – and secure in the knowledge that we don’t share their character flaw – we often dismiss those who are obsessed with the doings of others as shallow.

Indeed, in its rawest form, gossip is a strategy used by individuals to further their own reputations and interests at the expense of others. Studies confirm that gossip can be used in cruel ways for selfish purposes.

At the same time, how many can walk away from a juicy story about one of their acquaintances and keep it to themselves? Surely, each of us has had first-hand experience with the difficulty of keeping spectacular news about someone else a secret.

When disparaging gossip, we overlook the fact that it’s an essential part of what makes the social world tick; the nasty side of gossip overshadows the more benign ways in which it functions.

In fact, gossip can actually be thought of not as a character flaw, but as a highly evolved social skill. Those who can’t do it well often have difficulty maintaining relationships, and can find themselves on the outside looking in.

Avoiding gossip: a one-way ticket to social isolation

Today, good gossipers are influential and popular members of their social groups.

Sharing secrets is one-way people bond, and sharing gossip with another person is a sign of deep trust: you’re signaling that you believe that the person will not use this sensitive information against you.

Therefore, someone skillful at gossip will have a good rapport with a large network of people. At the same time, they’ll be discreetly knowledgeable about what’s going on throughout the group.

On the other hand, someone who is not part of, say, the office gossip network is an outsider – someone neither trusted nor accepted by the group. Presenting yourself as a self-righteous soul who refuses to participate in gossip will ultimately end up being nothing more than a ticket to social isolation.

In the workplace, studies have shown that harmless gossiping with one’s colleagues can build group cohesiveness and boost morale.

Gossip also helps to socialize newcomers into groups by resolving ambiguity about group norms and values. In other words, listening to the judgments that people make about the behavior of others helps the newbie figure out what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

Fear of whispers keeps us in check

On the flip side, the awareness that others are likely talking about us can keep us in line.

Among a group of friends or co-workers, the threat of becoming the target of gossip can actually be a positive force: it can deter “free-riders” and cheaters who might be tempted slack off or take advantage of others.

Celebrity gossip may have a purpose after all

Belgian psychologist Charlotte de Backer makes a distinction between strategy learning gossip and reputation gossip.

When gossip is about a particular individual, we’re usually interested in it only if we know that person. However, some gossip is interesting no matter whom it’s about. This sort of gossip can involve stories about life-or-death situations or remarkable feats. We pay attention to them because we may be able to learn strategies that we can apply to our own lives.

Indeed, de Backer discovered that our interest in celebrities may feed off of this thirst for learning life strategies. For better or for worse, we look to celebrities in the same way that our ancestors looked to role models within their tribes for guidance.

At its core, our fixation on celebrities is reflective of an innate interest in the lives of other people.

From an evolutionary standpoint, “celebrity” is a recent phenomenon, due primarily to the explosion of mass media in the 20th century. Our ancestors, on the other hand, found social importance in the intimate details of everyone’s private life, since everyone in their small social world mattered.

The bottom line is that we need to rethink the role of gossip in everyday life; there’s no need to shy away from it or to be ashamed of it.

Successful gossiping entails being a good team player and sharing key information with others in ways that won’t be perceived as self-serving. It’s about knowing when it’s appropriate to talk, and when it’s probably best to keep your mouth shut.

Priyanka Banik

Priyanka Banik

IRIANS- The Neuroscience Institute

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