We define ourselves in what we do and what we say and who we are and how we interact with others. Simply standing around and talking can turn out to be an important expression of the kind of person we would like to be—or not to be.
When we are gossiping, we are talking about a person or group who, if they were present, would not appreciate what we had to say. A 2008 study published in Scientific American suggests that human beings are hardwired to enjoy gossip—it’s part of our biological makeup as social beings.
As social human beings, we naturally enjoy gossip. Epicurus would classify gossip as a natural pleasure, but it’s not a necessary one. We could live our whole lives without gossip and we would not suffer, unlike sleeping or eating, but when we gossip we do add a little bit of pleasure to our own lives.
The benefits of gossip:
According to psychologist Colin Gill, gossiping “boosts levels of positive hormones like serotonin, reducing stress and anxiety.” When we gossip, we’re taking an interest in what other people have to say and vice versa, and bonding with them makes us feel happier, releasing those feel-good chemicals.
David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology and anthropology at the State University of New York at Binghamton and the author of Darwin's Cathedral, a book on evolution and group behavior, says, “When two or more people huddle to share inside information about another person who is absent, they are often spreading important news, and enacting a mutually protective ritual.”
The down side of gossip:
While gossip does have its benefits, there are good arguments to be made against it:
Gossip excludes. We love the feeling of belonging, and gossip is a powerful way of establishing an “us”—but at the exclusion of the “them.”
Gossip ruins reputations. A reputation is hard to build, but once broken it’s even harder to repair. Gossip often happens without all the facts and reasons and circumstances, but with the authority of truth.
Gossip pulls rank. Gossiping gives us a false sense of moral superiority. As Nietzsche points out, the feeling of rank is one of the most basic human instincts. To gossip about someone is to elevate yourself above him or her.
Gossip is morally questionable. The German term "schadenfreude" means taking pleasure in the pain of others. And we do take a strange sort of pleasure in discussing the suffering of others. It may be a fact of human psychology, but it’s morally unsound.
Gossip creates herd mentality. Gossip often leads to groupthink, which occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because of group pressures. We are especially vulnerable to groupthink when we are with those from similar backgrounds, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making. The worst kind of human behavior can result when we start letting herd mentality settle the question what is true or what is false, what is right and what is wrong.
So should we gossip or not?
Gossip can bond us, protects us, make us feel good, create intimacy—but ask yourself:
Do you trust those who speak about others?
Do you admire those who exclude others?
Do you respect those who feel superior to others?
Do you esteem those who delight in others’ suffering?
Do you want to follow those who follow a herd mentality?
The way we talk about others can have a tremendous moral force—not only on our character and development but within the society around us.
If you think of your conversation as act of morality—a morality that brings us together to help one another and not cause harm, when you ask yourself whether gossip is OK the simple answer is: probably not.
As the old aphorism says, strong minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; weak minds discuss people.
The Quest for Meaning: We should live our lives representing who we are and treating others as we would wish to be treated.
More information about Lolly Daskal: www.lollydaskal.com
(Photo credit: Mashable)