Science

Speaking ill is healthy

Yes, let's gossip!

‘Gossip? Why, I never do that. Never!’ Romanian Elena Martinescu jokes. She laughs, because she knows better: two thirds of the conversations we have with each other are about other people. But why do we gossip? And what is the point?
By Leoni von Ristok / Illustration by Kalle Wolters / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Gossiping has a bad reputation, but it is actually very important.

This is the conclusion Elena Martinescu drew in her PhD research about the use of gossip.

Talking about other people builds a bond and trust between people.

By talking about others, you obtain information, and you can assess your own position better.

Gossiping gives you the power to make other people see the world the way you do.

By badmouthing someone, you can manipulate relationships and damage people.

Reading time: 6 minutes (1,054 words)

Gossiping has a bad reputation. Talking behind someone’s back is underhanded and rude. ‘But gossiping is actually really important’, says Elena Martinescu. ‘We used to think that people gossip mainly to hurt others and benefit themselves. But it’s much more complex than that.’

It is not just a way to vent, but also a way to build trust, gather information, and assess your own position. Moreover, you can use gossip as a way to influence others and adjust your own behaviour. And gossip is not necessarily the same thing as badmouthing someone. Each informal conversation where you talk about third person who is not there qualifies as gossip.

Trust

‘Gossip helps us assess our own position better and reflect on ourselves’, says Martinescu. ‘Spreading and exchanging gossip creates bonds and trust.’ It lets us know we share the same problems and see things the same way. Gossiping is often easier than a direct confrontation. If a colleague does something you do not like, it is easier to (first) talk to someone else about it. If you both agree that the colleague’s behaviour is out of line, you can do something about it together.

Gossiping is a way of finding out if others see a situation the same way you do, says Martinescu. ‘But it can also lead to a better understanding of people.’ Example: you are extremely irritated by your colleague Tina, who is often late, barely attends any meetings, and does not answer her emails. When you share your frustrations with your other colleague Luke, he tells you that Tina is the sole caretaker of her terminally ill husband. This allows you to understand her behaviour, seeing her in a different light.

Difficult

‘People who don’t gossip find it difficult to be part of their social environment and can’t relate to their colleagues’, says Martinescu. Not everything can be done through ‘formal communication’. ‘No one is going to send you a formal memo not to leave paper in the printer. But if one of your colleagues tells you how annoying they find it when someone else does it, you’ll start remembering your print jobs.’

‘Gossip is a great way to obtain information and to influence others’, says the PhD researcher. ‘You help people interpret a social situation. You can shape the way other people see someone.’ The information you collect through gossiping can influence how you think, as well as the decisions you make.

Secret

The influence you have through gossiping can be real, but also symbolic. It can make you feel as though you actually did something to control your environment. Gossiping also allows you to easily spread your opinion. After all, gossip is secret. Because the person you are talking about has no clue.

‘Gossiping is a way of exerting power’, says Martinescu. ‘You can make other people see the world the way you see it.’ People with less power gossip more than people in higher positions. That is because you can benefit more from gossip if you are lower on the rung.

‘If you have little power, gossiping is the easiest way to deal with that subordinate position you’re in’, Martinescu explains. Gossip gives you access to information, enables you to influence people, and can improve your position in a group. ‘Everyone gossips, but who and to what end all depends on your place on the social ladder’, the PhD researcher concludes.

Less power, more gossip

People with less power gossip to everyone. People in higher positions gossip mainly with colleagues in similar positions, and not with their employees. When you’re in power, you don’t need gossip to obtain information or to influence people’, Martinescu says. You can just say: production has stopped, fix it.

Besides, creating strong bonds with your subordinates can go awry, according to Martinescu. It can lead to problems when you need to tell them how to do their job. You run the risk of not being taken seriously, and of emotional blackmail. Such as, ‘You’re my friend, how can you ask me to do this?’

The most common topics of gossip

Incompetence
Infidelity
Strange sexual preferences
Stupid things people have said
Political preferences
Legal problems
Choice of clothing
Religion or life style
Choice of partner
Illnesses and health
Annoying behaviour

Men versus women

‘I have found no evidence that women gossip more than men’, says Martinescu. ‘Some studies do claim that women are more affected by gossip.’ However, the researchers in those studies asked participants how they thought they’d react to gossip. When you ask people how they actually felt, there was no difference, according to Martinescu. ‘That means that women overestimate how emotional their reaction would be’, she says. ‘That women gossip more or have stronger reactions to gossip is more of a stereotype. In reality it’s not that bad.’

‘Men and women gossip a lot, in many different situations. It’s in the background of everything we do.’ We gossip more in environments that are important to us, such as at work or at home. Both men and women use gossip to influence their social environment, to obtain information, and to compare themselves to others.

Competition

Environments in which insecurity, competition, and stress reign, gossips tends to be overwhelmingly negative. In this situation, people need it to manipulate the image they have of other people. While gossip helps to decrease stress, it can also create extra pressure because you know that everyone is looking at you and talking about you.

The things you say about a person can truly damage them. After all, you are manipulating their reputation. When there is an excess of negative gossip about a single person, the entire social environment can become hostile. Creating a negative image of someone can have drastic consequences. That person could get fired, or when they hear the gossip it can truly hurt them. Trust is needed for people to work together. ‘If there is so much negative gossip that it prevents you from having a good relationship with your colleagues, it’s become too much.’

 

 

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