Remember that guilt-inducing comment you got growing up from your mom, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all”? It was pretty much code for “stop talking sh*t about people behind their back.” Obviously, at this point in your adult life you know better — or at least you’re aware that gossiping almost always comes back to bite you. But what if we told you that gossip isn’t all that bad? In fact, what if it turned out to be that all the chatter may have some benefits?
Alas, it’s true. Even etiquette consultants agree that gossip serves some very useful purposes: “Not only does it help to construct bonds between the teller and the listener, but it also communicates the unwritten rules for a culture or subculture,” says Jodi Smith, etiquette expert and owner of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting in Marblehead, Mass. “By listening to the gossip in your social circle, you’ll learn what behaviors are considered acceptable and what is unacceptable, and by tuning into gossip at work, you’ll learn who has interpersonal power and how things are accomplished.” Even in a new social grouping, she says you will also learn what behaviors are considered acceptable and what is not.
Makes sense. Think about the last time you were gossiping about someone else to a friend or co-worker. Didn’t the conversation make you feel slightly closer to the person you were talking to? April Masini, New York-based relationship and etiquette expert, points out that gossip bonds the gossipers against a common subject of the gossip, but says that not all gossip is malicious to the person being discussed. “There’s also good gossip, where people talk about how nice, talented or smart someone is behind their backs,” she explains. “They wouldn’t share this information with the subject of gossip because it still may seem inappropriate.”
While most of us wouldn’t call this “good gossip” really “gossip” to begin with, it most certainly fits the bill. According to Masini, gossip by definition is talking about someone who is not there, because they are not there. Negative gossip, however, is a whole other ball game. “People also gossip because they have negative things to say about someone and are too cowardly to say these things to a person’s face,” she explains. “This dynamic encourages negative behavior and stokes falsehoods.”
Smith agrees, adding that malicious gossip can range from information that is cruelly judgmental to outright lies. In her opinion, it’s best to avoid ever spreading malicious gossip: “When hearing malicious gossip, is it important to consider the source and refrain from repeating what you have heard.”
Of course, while there are some benefits to gossiping, it still may do more harm than good at the end of the day. That’s why both Masini and Smith recommend limiting your gossip as much as you can. “A lot of the time people can get sucked into bad behavior, like negative gossiping, and they stay in that position because of peer pressure or inertia, but when someone comes along and says, ‘no more gossip,’ that can be a community game changer,” says Masini. “Most people don’t think they have a choice, and they slide into gossip, but they do.”
So, next time someone starts gossiping, it won’t hurt to listen. But if you get a bad gut feeling about the conversation, it’s probably best you listen to that instead.