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Gossip: We are all guilty of it!

If you don’t have anything nice to say, say it anyway.

Let’s face it: gossips get a bad rap.

Smugly looking down from a 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. From what I have mostly witnessed, 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 firsthand 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. Like it or not, we are the descendants of busy bodies. Evolutionary psychologists believe that our preoccupation with the lives of others is a byproduct of a prehistoric brain.

According to scientists, because our prehistoric ancestors lived in relatively small groups, they knew one another intimately. In order to ward off enemies and survive in their harsh natural environment, our ancestors needed to cooperate with in-group members. But they also recognized that these same in-group members were their main competitors for mates and limited resources.

Living under such conditions, our ancestors faced a number of adaptive social problems: who’s reliable and trustworthy? Who’s a cheater? Who would make the best mate? How can friendships, alliances and family obligations be balanced?

In this sort of environment, an intense interest in the private dealings of other p e o p l e would have certainly been handy—and strongly favored by natural selection. People who were the best at harnessing their social intelligence to interpret, predict—and influence—the behavior of others became more successful than those who were not.

The genes of those individuals were passed along from one generation to the next.

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, a school 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.

On the flip side, the awareness that others are likely talking about us can keep us in line. Among a group of friends or coworkers, 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 to slack off or take advantage of others.

A life without gossip is an admirable quest but one that is probably as unlikely as pledging to live a life without telling lies. Put simply, without gossip, we run out of things to say – and without things to say, we cannot build relationships.

Gossip does m o r e t h a n ensure topics of conversation – it can provide a more powerful bonding experience than any outward-bound course. Exchanging news about another person puts the gossiper and the receivers in an exclusive group from which the victim is necessarily excluded. This makes an “in-group” which, say social psychologists, is the very essence of strong bond formation. Sharing “secrets” with select others, hearing your own views reinforced by your friends and having the opportunity to scapegoat someone else – all these elements of gossip help bolster your own sense of group membership.

That is not to say that gossip should have no boundaries. Malicious gossip can backfire as it carries implications about respect; your friends may be eager to hear your nasty rumor-mongering, but will be less likely to trust you with their news or think of you as a likeable person.

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.

Gossiping is addictive just like alcohol, perhaps; gossiping goes to head and achieves the highly desirable state of mind. No doubt it’s addictive, worse for the victim, since it can happen anytime, anywhere; appealing against it is next to impossible task. Fortunately, for regular gossipers there is no law that lays down guidelines. If there were any, I am sure the lawmaker would have become the first victim to appeal against incessant gossiping about him in public.

Noting these many things about gossip, I wonder if gossip can really be called an addiction. Probably yes, for it does have some resemblance with the habit of drinking that has gone overboard. You drink too much and the next day you wake up to rather unbearable head-ache (this is second-hand information, so you should take this with a pinch of salt and a glass of wine). Similarly, you over-indulge in gossip and if it leaks to the target, you may end up in severe headache of having to patch-up with that target!

The bottom line is that we need to rethink the role of gossip in everyday life; 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.

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