Gossip. We all do it. I have yet to meet a person who hasn’t participated in sharing information, opinions, or assessments about other people. There are some people who may not actively gossip but they certainly listen to it. Some people stockpile information gathered from gossip to later use to their advantage. Others just spread these tidbits without much thought. When we think of gossiping, we inherently know – through our social norms – that it is perceived as malicious, mean, and judgmental. So, why do we do it? We seem compelled to either collect or spread negative morsels of information about other people.
There are several reasons why people gossip. We are social creatures who interact on a variety of levels. Few people can successfully survive without contact with other humans. Due to our need for connection, our interpersonal communications with each other can become very complex. Our understanding of our world is determined not only from our own observations but also from the observations of others.
Below, I have compiled what I refer to as the C’s of Gossip; these are just a few examples of the motivations that inspire people to gossip.
We are curious by nature. Our inquisitiveness can cause us to become interested about people, whether we are directly involved with them or not. We are enthralled with the lives of others. From the billion dollar industry of the celebrity gossip outlets (magazines, websites, and social media) to the looky-loo traffic jams caused from car accidents, we are bombarded with people and situations that grab our interest. We, in turn, share what we find interesting (or disturbing, amusing, annoying, horrifying, etc.) with others. At times, we may just be reporting the facts but, in all honesty, we also share our judgment.
We compare/contrast ourselves to others. We do this to better identify who we are as individuals and how we measure up to others. We compare/contrast to potentially determine our success or failure. We compare/contrast to find commonality as well as differences. It is when we seek the opinions of others to validate of our observations that we get into trouble. When we ask our ‘sounding boards’ to help identify our similarities and differences to others, we invite the potential development of a gossip-fest. When two or more gather for a chit-chat, each individual may have an observation or two to add to the conversation about a person. Within time, the group list will grow as you share opinions and information about someone.
When watching those television programs that deal with addiction, every addict who encounters an intervention seems to proclaim, “Well, I see you have all been talking about me behind my back.” To the addict, the family and friends have engaged in gossip. For those who care for the addict, they have conversations out of concern for their loved one who is struggling. Sometimes, we need to compare notes and share vital information about people to offer them the help that they may need.
Whether we are competing for the affections of someone special, maneuvering for a promotion at work, or engaging in other activities in which we need to compete with someone, gossiping can come into play. We can use gossip to gather Intel and information about others. At times, we may even use gossip to drop a poisonous pellet of information to sabotage another person. Competition can bring out the best and worst in people. Even the most ethical person can be lured into gossiping when stakes may seem too high for loss to be an option.
On an individual level or within a group setting, when we are engaged in conflict, we can become embroiled in gossip. Mutual dislike is powerful. The commonality of dislike can bring diverse people and factions together to square off against the perceived opponent or threat. Ideological conflicts – religious, political, economic, social orders – are pervasive. The current political atmosphere in the United States is a perfect example. Mudslinging and gossip have become the norm as both sides levy to gain an advantage for their cause. Instead of sharing information for a belief, it is more common to share misinformation about the opponent; misinformation in itself becomes a weapon of attack.
You have the choice to decide if you want to gossip. Keep in mind that if you gossip frequently, people may develop the opinion that you are a gossipmonger. They will become distrustful of you and withhold information. You can lose credibility, especially in the professional world. There is a fine line between being the go-to person for information about others versus being labeled the company blabbermouth.
It is also important to be careful when listening to gossip. Often, the information is inaccurate. The childhood game, Telephone, is an example of how repeated information loses its accuracy over time. Poor choices are made, personally or professionally, when we act upon information that is untrue or incorrect. It is a sound idea to always verify information gathered through gossip.
I try to recognize my own motivation before I gossip about others. It is in my best interest to keep my snarky-based opinions to myself. Rarely, if ever, have I found any positive from sharing petty, mean judgments about others. If there is a legitimate situation for concern about another person, I try to use the most concise, respectful language to express my concern. I understand that my words have power and I, alone, am accountable for my words.