There's More To Gossiping Than We Give It Credit For + Why We Do It
It's one of those things I was taught as a young girl: Don't gossip; it's a petty habit and leads only to superficial conversations. I'd always abashedly assumed it was the forbidden nature of those chats that made them so, well, enjoyable (because they can be!). But, research is showing, it may be more complicated than that.
According to reporting by researchers at Dartmouth College, previous studies suggest that about 14% of our daily conversations fall under the "gossip" umbrella—so why are we so quick to dismiss it as a trivial, unimportant part of our communications? In their recently published paper in Current Biology, researchers show that our penchant for gossip may actually have some benefits when it comes to forging connections.
Why do we gossip?
Even when we're told it's an impolite behavior, gossip is a pervasive part of many communities. "Gossip is a complex form of communication that is often misunderstood," says Eshin Jolly, Ph.D., a co-author of the study. "It can be a means of social and substantive connection beyond its typical negative connotation." It's more than just sharing rumors, but it can also be as simple as having a casual private chat with a friend—something we've maybe been missing out on during the last year amid the social distancing.
The intent of their study was to find out why we gossip, using a game designed to model how we exchange personal information in our lives. "Our inspiration was creating a lifelike scenario, in which you're a member of a community and affected by the actions of all other community members, most of whom you rarely observe and engage with directly," Jolly explained. After either playing a game and being able to chat with their opponent or just being restricted to gameplay, participants indicated how much they'd want to play with that person again—and they found that those who had open chat were more inclined to play together again.
"By exchanging information with others, gossip is a way of forming relationships," explained Luke Chang, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of the COSAN Lab at Dartmouth who co-authored the study. "It involves trust and facilitates a social bond that is reinforced as further communication takes place."
Why gossip is especially important now.
In cases where we're interacting with others without our normal physical cues (for example, over video calls or messaging platforms), gossiping together can help to fill in the gaps in developing those bonds. But gossip shouldn't be one-dimensional: It should be about finding connections and creating what the researchers call "shared reality" to forge deeper connections.
In professional settings, a little bit of healthy gossip may also help facilitate productivity: They found that communication increased cooperation in joint tasks for the games, suggesting that forming those relationships isn't just good for our mental health but also in more concrete ways for our daily routine—and that gossiping with colleagues may be to your employer's benefit.
"Gossip can be useful because it helps people learn through the experiences of others while enabling them to become closer to each other in the process," says Jolly. The important details are making sure that we're gossiping with empathy and having conversations about the fun little details of life, not just the drama.