Good News About Gossip

New research reveals evidence that gossip is common and not often malicious.

Posted Jul 12, 2019

Deutsche Fotothek
Source: Deutsche Fotothek

Gossip has a bad reputation. Labeling your conversation as “gossip” generally brings up a sense that you’re doing something wrong, or even malicious. A google search of “gossip quotes” supports the notion that people think that those who gossip are immoral and unintelligent:

“Rumors are carried by haters, spread by fools, and accepted by idiots.”

“Gossip dies when it enters the ears of the wise.”

However, most gossip research reveals that it is a normal behavior. In fact, gossip is nearly 14% of daily conversation, according to a study that my colleague, Dr. Alex Karan, and I recently published. What’s more, gossip also fosters trust and closeness among friends, and can provide moral guidelines for behavior.

Despite multiple studies that reveal an upside to gossip, negative opinions about gossip are resistant to change. This was particularly striking to me after a recent presentation I gave on a gossip study from my lab.

After I finished, people mostly asked me about what counts as gossip, and some of the questions included whether talking about the U.S. President, discussing a letter of recommendation with a colleague, or discussing someone else’s health (with that person’s permission) counted as gossip. My answer to all of them was “yes.”

The academic definition of gossip is simply that you’re talking about someone who isn’t present.

I had a sense that inherent in all of their questions was stigma surrounding the word “gossip.” Despite having just sat through my 30-minute presentation on how gossip is very common, how it often doesn’t portray the subject negatively, and that it can serve positive functions, audience members were still asking questions that seemed to be seeking permission to not call their behavior “gossip.”

Clearly, people are resistant to dropping the stigma surrounding gossip.

Why should anyone care about stigma surrounding gossip? The stigma can be particularly damaging when people view gossip in terms of stereotypes. For example, popular belief is that women gossip more than men, and labeling women’s conversation as gossip can belittle what women have to say—in the workplace and social settings.

In our study, we actually found that there was little evidence to support the claim that women “dish the dirt” more than men. We did find that women gossiped neutrally more than men, but there was no solid evidence for women gossiping negatively or positively more than men.

In fact, most instances of gossip from our study were pretty boring. We directly sampled gossip in 467 participants’ lives using a method called the EAR, which records short sound bites as people go about their daily lives (for more information on the EAR, click here and here).

In trying to find examples from these sound files for my presentation, I had trouble finding anything very interesting—even when searching the negative gossip (15.1% of gossip in our study). Without reading each of the 4,003 gossip transcripts from the study, I did the best I could and found this example of gossip from one of our study participants:

“Who ends up doing all the cooking and cleaning and the cleaning up and then putting things away and putting it all up? And she is like we have to be there on time. I don’t care what the other, the other families do. And we were always the only ones. And she is like… it is going to be different. And I'm like it is never different. They are never on time they always show up like 10 minutes before dinner. They eat the food and leave and then they leave everybody else to clean it up.”

This is (perhaps disappointingly) not terribly salacious or juicy gossip. The revelation here is that even when people gossip negatively, most of it is pretty mundane. In fact, 74.3% of all sampled gossip in this study was neutral, meaning not positively or negatively evaluative. Neutral gossip included discussions like this:

“She went to a movie yesterday and she's going to go tomorrow and we're going to go to a performance tomorrow night down at the University so anyways so. But yup she's trying to catch up on the movies and stay current with them and catch some of the old ones as they come up.”

Some gossip can even be positive (9.4% in our study). This was often a compliment about someone’s appearance or achievement. For example, “I’m not sure if she was a model or something, but I mean, she was very beautiful.”

Researchers also point out another upside to gossip—that it serves a moral function. Gossip can teach others about what behavior is considered right and wrong in one’s culture, and can also serve as a sort of punishment for bad behavior. So even when people spread negative gossip, this can serve important functions.

Imagine you are discussing someone you’re considering dating, and your friend tells you about that person’s long history of cheating. This would serve as a warning to you that you might want to reconsider entering a relationship with that person. It would also be a warning sign to potential cheaters that they might not want to ruin their reputation.

In short, gossip is a ubiquitous behavior that can serve important functions in society. Feel free to spread the good news about gossip!

References

Baumeister, R. F., Zhang, L., & Vohs, K. D. (2004). Gossip as cultural learning. Review of General Psychology, 8(2), 111–121. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1089-2680.8.2.111

Bosson, J. K., Johnson, A. B., Niederhoffer, K., & Swann, W. B. (2006). Interpersonal chemistry through negativity: Bonding by sharing negative attitudes about others. Personal Relationships, 13(2), 135–150. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.2006.00109.x

Grosser, T. J., Lopez-Kidwell, V., & Labianca, G. (2010). A Social Network Analysis of Positive and Negative Gossip in Organizational Life. Group & Organization Management, 35(2), 177–212. https://doi.org/10.1177/1059601109360391

Robbins, M. L., & Karan, A. (2019). Who Gossips and How in Everyday Life? Social Psychological and Personality Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550619837000

Source: Deutsche Fotothek