Human beings have been gossiping since they first learnt to communicate. It’s a basic social instinct and serves several useful functions, but it can be nasty and it can be dangerous and it needs to be approached with sense and discretion.
If we take the definition of gossip to be chit-chatting about trivial matters, it can be beneficial both as a way of disseminating information that is of help or interest to the hearer and as a means of two or more people bonding. It keeps us up to date with what’s going on, makes us feel part of the community and is an important social lubricant.
Even when the subject is more serious, gossiping about it can be useful. Other people’s opinions may shed light on the situation and articulating our own views can help us to evaluate them and keep them sharp. What distinguishes gossip from either smalltalk or discussion is the element of rumour and speculation it typically involves, but this is not inherently bad. Hypothetical conversations can give us an opportunity to consider our options and prepare ourselves for eventualities – for example, if word spreads in a company of coming redundancies or relocation. As long as it’s clear we’re talking about possibilities and hearsay rather than solid facts, there is nothing wrong with this sort of gossip.
The problem with gossip – and the reason it’s so often used as a pejorative term – is its tendency to slide into backbiting and bitchiness. Over the years I have become very wary of participating in gossip, particularly of a negative variety, when it pertains to individuals. Admittedly, it can be handy to be apprised of what the word on the street is in relation to someone you may be getting involved with, in a personal or business capacity, but you should never assume gossip is true without checking the evidence. So much is reported and distorted – or simply invented – out of spite, jealousy or other selfish and destructive motive that you have to employ your own judgement and decide for yourself whether the gossip is in any way fair. Don’t believe everything you hear!
The sad fact is, exchanging unpleasantries about someone who is not present satisfies a primal human need for belonging. United with the others against a common enemy, we feel superior and safe; we are accepted, a member of the hunting pack rather than the quarry. It can be horribly easy to be swept along on the tide of dislike, buoyed up by the feelings of superiority and safety, and the situation can quickly get out of control. This is the mentality of the lynch-mob and, when you stop to think about it, it’s frightening – and not only because tomorrow the hate may turn on you.
When you find yourself in the midst of gossip, stay grounded and maintain your integrity. Betraying a friend’s confidence, or agreeing that someone you like is unspeakable because of some alleged misdemeanor you find it hard to imagine they have really committed, may earn you some short-term popularity but in the long run you will lose by this behaviour. At the very least, you’ll have a guilty conscience. Swimming counter to a groundswell of negative opinion requires courage and strength and if you don’t feel equal to the task, find a way to extricate yourself from the conversation so that you don’t have to take part.
Whether you’re spreading it or merely listening to it, insidious gossip can poison friendships and partnerships as well as reputations, because it undermines trust. Trust is a fragile commodity. It exists as a kind of contract: you earn my trust and maintain it by remaining trustworthy; in return, I give you the benefit of any doubt and talk through with you any worries I have, rather than taking the word of a third party about you. When trust is nurtured from both sides like this, it forges a positive and happy relationship – and this is worth so much more than any fleeting thrill indulged in around the now-proverbial water-cooler.