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The Right and Wrong Way to Gossip

You’re at brunch with a new group of friends when less than 5 minutes in, they begin talking about a woman you all know from your book club. “She’s totally fake,” one says with an eye roll. And the ladies all say, “Amen”, as another leans in, lowers her voice, and whispers, “Plus I hear that her dad supports her. The fancy apartments, the trips, yeah, that’s all Daddy’s money.” You freeze, knowing they will soon turn to you to chime in. So you order another mimosa to buy yourself some time.

But what do you do? The gossip makes you a little uncomfortable, but will you look self righteous if you shut it down? Will you appear disloyal to the group? Will you look like you’re choosing a side by contributing to their catty speculations? And the biggest question of you even have the right to call it out if you have been guilty of gossiping yourself?

We’re going to help you look at gossip in a completely different way, because as it turns out, there is actually a good and bad kind.

We’re going to explore:

  1. How to tell the difference between good and bad gossip.

  2. The direct impacts it’s having on your friendships.

  3. The reasons why we do it.

  4. Two scripts you can use to shut it down without the awkwardness.

The scenario we shared is a real experience based on a true story, and we know you’ve probably experienced some variation of that story yourself. Gossip gets such a bad rap and when the subject comes up, we all collectively shame it and make it clear that we don’t like it. But we might have the wrong idea.

Here’s what gossip actually means: sharing fact based information about a person when he or she is not present. So if you’ve ever talked about your sister’s big test coming up or told someone your friend got a new car last weekend, you gossiped. You probably feel shame around that, right? Now rumors are different from gossip in that they involve speculation and hypothesis, some added flavor to your story, if you will. This can obviously be devastating as you’re distorting a version of the truth and once that is set loose, it can have a ripple effect of damaging consequences for the person you’re talking about.

Picture this: a group of women is sitting around talking about someone’s bad haircut, relationship troubles, or even their obnoxious laugh. Here’s where things become problematic.

  1. If I tell you someone got a haircut, that’s a fact. If I use it as an example of this woman having the worst taste or slacking on her appearance, that’s gossip.

  2. If I tell you that Maria and Brian are in relationship counseling, it’s a fact (even if it may be none of your business). But if I begin to speculate as to why they got there and insert my own opinion on whether or not Maria needs to leave, that’s gossip.

  3. If I tell you that Tonya has a distinct laugh, and the office has come to know her for it, that’s a fact. But as soon as I mention that she needs to tone it down because the shrill sound makes me want to cut my ears off, that’s not a pleasant exchange.

The key differentiator here in positive or negative gossip is purpose, how much we’re evaluating the fact-based information we’re sharing, and our intent. Believe it or not, this has actually emerged as a large area of study in the anthropological, sociological, and psychological arenas: the function of gossip, its purpose, how we do it, and why.

Gossip helps us determine social norms, and it turns out that ⅔ of our conversation would be qualified as gossip: exchanging information about other people. That’s not necessarily malicious at the root. If you tell me, a new employee, a story about how someone did something crazy at work and that this person got let go as a result, I walk away from the conversation having learned the boundaries of this company. This was a good example to help me learn the culture of this company and what they value. Through gossip, I can learn information about who is an ally, what’s acceptable behavior, the norms, etc. We learn this through comparison and talk of what’s going on with the people around us.

Research from the University of California finds that we spend on average about an hour a day gossiping. Seventy-five percent of that gossip, or information exchanged of people who aren’t present, is not evaluative, which means it’s neutral. This is great news because we’re not evaluating, assessing, or integrating our own opinions; we are just sharing information. But fifteen percent of this gossip is negative, while ten percent is considered positive.

Let’s spend a little time exploring negative gossip because this is the context we’re more familiar with (and it can cause some issues).

Why do some women engage in negative gossip?

  1. It makes us feel closer to each other. Research shows that sharing a negative opinion of someone can make you feel connected to that person. While it can be detrimental, it’s why some women engage. Have you ever noticed that sometimes when you meet someone for the first time, she’s telling you some dirt on someone else? She could be doing it because she’s trying to build a connection with you, this person she’s just met.

  2. We’re trying to build alliances. Again, this is a problematic way of doing that, but if I’m trying to build more loyalty to myself, then naturally I’m going to share negative opinions or rumors about another person. This brings the other person down, and by extension, you view me better.

  3. Insecurity. It offers a temporary relief to think about how someone else may be doing worse.

  4. Some women take a perverse pleasure in talking poorly about other people. We attach this motive to most gossip, and while the average person isn’t actively trying to bring others down and taking delight in it, there are those who do.

How does this impact our friendships?

  1. It might connect us, but not every connection is a healthy one.

  2. It can breed mistrust, which suffocates any opportunity for vulnerability. You may be reluctant to share your own business with your friend because they always have something to say about others’. The real definition of vulnerability is feeling safe being seen in the relationship. And if you don’t feel safe being seen, then you can’t show up as your full self in the friendship.

  3. It’s going to alter the way you see your friend, as someone who isn’t genuine.

  4. It threatens to bring you down. Negativity can really take a toll.

Here are two scripts you can use the next time you’re in a situation where one or two people are gossiping and you feel like you should say something.

  1. “Ugh, girl, you know what, I’m trying to get better with gossip, so even though there are things I want to say, let me stop.” Instead of coming from a self-righteous place, you’re commiserating and identifying with them. It identifies without coming across as judgmental. This can be effective because it helps them become more mindful of what they’re doing and it ends the conversation.

  2. Let’s say your friends are talking about someone being evicted from their house. You might say something like, “I just feel bad. I know if people knew about my money struggles, I’d be mortified, so I don’t even want to know about what she’s got going on.” Now I’m empathizing with the person we’re talking about, and I’m trying to communicate this empathy to the women who are taking delight in the conversation. You’re saying in a nice way, “I can’t participate because I really feel for her right now.”

If you find yourself feeling distant from your friends and not feeling positive about yourself after your interactions because you engaged with gossip, we’re here to help. We don’t want it to have an impact on your friendships, but we really don’t want it to have an impact on you. And from an integrity standpoint, it’s just not cool to talk negatively about people when they’re not around.

If you have a more specific issue that you want to work through in real time (without judgement!), consider booking your one-on-one friendship coaching session.

And if you're tired of getting one-off tips and are in need of a deeper, more overall friendship transformation, you should probably consider joining our signature 8-week program, "Friendship Elevated" (which includes weekly videos, homework, and 4-5 coaching sessions!). Learn more here.

Danielle Jackson, Friendship Speaker

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