Gossip: Good for the Soul, Believe It or Not

As someone who was bullied in middle school, just like everyone else was bullied in middle school I understand how hurtful other humans’ words can be. Still, we all talk about other people. We discuss our favorite literary characters on Goodreads, we analyze our beloved television and movie protagonists on Tumblr, and we hear parents converse about their children all the time. But talking about your peers or other people in general brings benefits, even though society tells us otherwise. The rewards of gossip depend on the gossipers’ intent, and if done for the right reasons, it can help out several people.

This selfie from a few months ago captures how I feel about middle school. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... just kidding, it was only the worst of times.

This selfie from a few months ago captures how I feel about middle school. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… just kidding, it was only the worst of times.

Gossip improves our health and builds upon our bonds with other people. According to social comparison theory, we measure ourselves by looking at the performance of others. If we need a self-esteem boost, we compare our writing to that of our ten-year-old cousin, but if we want to motivate ourselves to work harder, we compare ourselves to our favorite authors. Gossip also presents us with a point of conversation – discussing other people gives us something to talk about, and it can also provide us with insight into our social group and where we stand within it. These concepts focus on how gossip assists ourselves when it really aids others as well.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” But we can discuss ideas through the lens of other people if we employ our cognitive resources. A difference lies between saying “Suzy dates so many guys and is such a slut” and “maybe Suzy dates so many guys because the other girls bully her, or perhaps it’s because she has a tough home life and needs support from somewhere outside her family.” As opposed to merely commenting on other people’s behavior, we can put ourselves in their shoes and empathize with why they act or think the way they do. Comprehending others’ motivations and combating our own underlying assumptions moves us past trivial chatter and propels us forward to talking about other people in terms of big picture ideas like compassion, racism, education, and more.

We can help people by first talking about them as well. If someone exhibits aggressive behavior and we feel too afraid to confront them on our own, we can discuss their violent actions with another friend to determine an appropriate course of action. Gossiping about people does not preclude talking to them afterward; we can raise findings and ideas in casual conversation, like, “Suzy and I noticed that you were upset the other day.” Throughout history humans have used rumor and gossip to our advantage, and this article describes it as “public communications that are infused with private hypotheses about how the world works.” If we avoid slander or talking about others in mean or unflattering ways, gossip gives us valuable space for insightful and appropriate conversation.

Gossip has its pitfalls. But we should not label behaviors as negative or positive without thinking about them. We cannot assume that everyone who watches TV leads boring and unfulfilled lives, and we should strive to create ways to change our actions for the better. Not everyone should feel inclined to gossip, but for those who do, we can talk about others in order to benefit both us and them, to raise awareness and empathy, and to add insight into our perspectives of all the people around us.

New TV obsession: Shameless (US). My best friend and I gossip/psychoanalyze these characters so hard. Does anyone else watch it?

New TV obsession: Shameless (US). My best friend and I gossip about/psychoanalyze these characters so hard. Does anyone else watch it?

What do you guys think? Is gossip good or bad or somewhere in between? Any experiences with it you would like to share? Perhaps I only wrote this post to justify all the time I spend psychoanalyzing fictional characters, though I suppose my motivations could be worse. Anyway, if you want to check out my thoughts on Life Without Ed by Jenni Schaefer or City of Heavenly Fire by Cassandra Clare, you can do so here and here respectively. Hope you all have a magical Monday and a wonderful week!

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Gossip: Good for the Soul, Believe It or Not

  1. Superbly written post, Thomas! I’ve never seen gossip under any other light than “highschool chicks that have nothing better to do” (and yes I’m probably one of those), but your post has definitely offered a fresh, better perspective on the effects of gossip!

    -Grace :)

    P.S. Excellent angle on the selfie ;)

    • We all have our preconceived notions when it comes to other people’s actions, and I’m glad this post has made you reconsider some of yours (as it has done for me as well). Thank you for reading and commenting and for your compliments, Grace!

  2. Another thought provoking post, Thomas! You make an interesting point about measuring ourselves against others – I think you’re right that by comparing ourselves to our favourite authors for example we can motivate ourselves to work harder, but I also think that comparing ourselves to others can have its pitfalls. If we constantly compare ourselves to others, we can often feel that we’re not good enough. You offer a great perspective on gossip and I hadn’t really thought of it as a necessarily positive thing – really great post :)

    • Gemma, I agree that social comparison can hurt as much as it helps. Being cognizant of the concept and its potential pitfalls is an important first step, though. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  3. Some times “things” happen and to process these things, to get outside opinions, help or suggestions, involves talking. I think it’s what the intent is when talking about a situation. If I couldn’t talk to my husband or my friend about a perceived offense- I may not get that feedback that tells me to hold. Wait. Look at it ‘this way’. Maybe what happened had nothing to do with you. Or maybe you’re taking it way too seriously. I hope I don’t talk about someone to be “mean”. But I know I do seek out help sometimes with helping me work through something. Or suggestions on how to handle something. Thought provoking for sure Thomas.

    • I agree Colleen, intent matters a lot when it comes to any action. Seeking help from others – even if it’s about other people – should not be perceived as an offense if there is no intent to do ill or to be mean. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  4. I think we would be shocked if we added up all the time in s day we spent talking about other people. You said how you loved analysing fictional characters, but talking about real people is kind if the same. But in a way it’s more interesting because they are actual people with actual feelings, hopes and fears, not just words on a page. I have just written a post on how I analyse people around me, so maybe I am not really one to comment. I hope I do it for the right reasons though (if there are really any right reasons).

    • You’re right – even those who do not consciously recognize it probably spend more time talking about others than they assume. I agree that real people have a spark that sometimes fictional characters lack, though I feel that that is true in reverse as well depending on the person/character. It’s wonderful that you’re thoughtful and aware of the people around you, and I definitely think that there are “right” reasons for such analysis, especially if it creates empathy and compassion. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  5. Another perspective of gossip. As someone who was ever bullied too, I hate gossip, I hate what people talk about me. Reading your posting makes me realize that there is always “positive” side of everything. In your view, gossip is not as scary as I feel. Like your posting, mate :)

    • Glad you appreciate the nuanced perspective! Gossip is not okay at all when its intent is to harm or belittle, but there is more to it than that. Thank you for reading and commenting. (:

  6. hmm I am of the same mind.. there’s kind of two types of gossip: malicious and harmless. The former is where you spout untruths and sneer behind someone’s back and the latter is just learning about the person and what they’ve been up to.. “Ah, I heard Hattie is in California!” “Ya, she had twins but recently divorced Al..” “Really? Is she holding up okay? I remember she had that cancer scare when she was with Al, that was a really rough time….”

    thanks for a nuanced view.. people sometimes do get carried away with such black and white views. Humans live in a society with relationships, and not in a world of abstract ideas, so it’s kind of naive to think that we can get by without any small talk or talk about other people..

    Michelle

    • Glad you are of the same mind, Michelle! It’s important to approach topics like these with nuance so we don’t just assume that there’s one moral or right answer to everything. As you say humans are social creatures, so it’s necessary to acknowledge that we like to think and talk about other people. Hope you are doing well in your work!

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