“If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me,” Alice Roosevelt Longworth used to quip.1 And plenty of people did.
Several years ago, the media headlined a study indicating that gossip might actually be good for you. But a closer look at the data reveals that only so-called positive gossip or chitchat is good for you, as in when you say something nice about someone else. Those who were critical of others experienced a 16 percent drop in positive emotions and a whopping 34 percent increase in negative emotions. So what’s the “good for you” part of gossip? In the short term it may result in a certain amount of social bonding. You’re part of an in-group that knows something others don’t. But this effect produces a rather shallow set of social connections. Additional studies indicate that most people dislike and distrust gossips and wouldn’t want to be considered one.2
So if gossip is bad for you and if no one wants to be called a gossip, why do so many of us keep flapping our tongues? Joseph Telushkin points out that gossip is primarily a game of social status. Ask yourself, he says, if you’ve ever heard people whispering the intimate details of their cleaning lady’s life.3
Most of us haven’t. We gossip, he says, not about our social inferiors but about those of similar or higher social status in an attempt to elevate our own status. Gossip can be a way of being “in the know” or of delighting in the fact that other people have problems too.
When you look at it like this, gossip is a game for the weak, not the strong. It’s the underdog trying to get the upper hand by passing on some juicy tidbit. The next time you’re tempted to watch a celebrity gossip show on TV or engage in gossip with friends, remind yourself that negative speech hurts at least three people: the person who spreads it, the person who listens to it, and the person who is the brunt of it.
- Pamela Paul, “Is Gossip Good for You?” New York Times, October 8, 2010, accessed November 22, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/fashion/10Studied.html.
- Joseph Telushkin, Words That Hurt, Words That Heal (New York: William Morrow, 1996), 36.