Dr Jozelle Miller
September 27, 2016
Highs and lows of gossip… Part 1

One researcher cited, “Gossip is a phenomenon that has been labeled by many as bad. Whenever someone brings up the word gossip, people most certainly would conjure images of wagging tongues and loose lips, of vicious gossipers and poor helpless targets.

“Common perception of gossip places it on the negative, as evidenced by the terms “small talk”, “shop talk”, “idle talk”, and “backstabbing”. {{more}}Stereotyped as malicious and hurtful, it has been widely blamed for damaged reputations, relationships gone sour and battered morale. History shows that gossiping has been gleaned as a destructive and deplorable act, one that warrants punishment and a warning to be watchful against.” Gossip is a form of reputational warfare and, in the organizational workplace, has been linked to reasons behind employee resignations, ineffective leaderships, and an atmosphere of animosity.

Ironically, despite gossip’s negative reputation, it remains ubiquitous. Practically everybody has participated in gossip, and sometimes it is unavoidable for one to be part of a gossip episode. Its continued existence amidst such a negative reputation has only added to its mystery, and has led to various studies. The meaning of gossip has undergone a lot of changes. Studies have been made to give room for a more neutral definition, recognizing that gossip can surprisingly be both positive and negative. Consequently, its effects could also be either good or bad. We shall seek to look at gossip through both lenses.

Is there good in gossip?

A Stanford University study found that what we might think as our worst qualities – for instance, talking about people behind their backs – can offer surprising benefits for our greater harmony. While gossip and ostracism get a bad rap, they may be quite good for society, according to Stanford scholars. Conventional wisdom holds that gossip and social exclusion are always malicious, undermining trust and morale in groups. But that is not always true, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science, gossip and ostracism can have very positive effects.

“Groups that allow their members to gossip, sustained cooperation and deter selfishness better than those that don’t. And groups do even better if they can gossip and ostracize untrustworthy members. While both of these behaviors can be misused, findings suggest that they also serve very important functions for groups and society.” The researchers found that when people learn – through gossip – about the behaviour of others, they use this information to align with those deemed cooperative. Those who have behaved selfishly can then be excluded from group activities, based on the prevailing gossip. This serves the group’s greater good, for selfish types are known to exploit more cooperative people for their own gains.

The dark side of gossip:

It’s been said, knowledge is power. Unfortunately, many people like to spread damaging information or intimate details about others, whether true or not. This is what is called gossip. It used to be that people called gossip, dishing the dirt. Whatever it’s called, people use gossip to hurt people, in order to feel good about themselves, and to feel like they have power over others.

If you know something juicy someone did over the weekend, it’s easy to feel like you have to tell others. We especially like it when we hear something that makes someone look bad. Celebrity bloggers and gossip magazines make millions of dollars off of this unfortunate reality. I’m sure you’ve encountered gossip. Some people seem to thrive on it. The most dangerous part about gossip is that it steals another person’s reputation. A reputation is very fragile. When you gossip, you are helping to destroy something extremely valuable.

To be continued next week

Dr Miller is Health Psychologist at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital.