Not all talk is bad, say experts. Find out how it can deepen your relationships and give you an edge in social circles
Let’s face it, gossiping is pretty much inevitable every time people get together. With multiple Lunar New Year visits and reunion dinner get-togethers just around the corner, gossip is bound to be flourishing freely during the festive season.
Like it or not, we are hardwired to gossip. Evolutionary psychologists believe that our preoccupation with the lives of others, is a by-product of a prehistoric brain. Lunch time conversations with co-workers; media events; high school reunions; and catch-up sessions with old friends – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve attended a gathering of some sort and heard people engaging in gossip about others (especially those who aren’t present at said gathering).
University of Oxford professor, Robin Dunbar, suggests in his book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, that the practice of talking about rumours and personal events in others’ lives is an important instrument of social order and bonding. It didn’t start off this way, but “for reasons that are not entirely clear, gossip has acquired a decidedly shady reputation,” he writes. Relationship experts estimate that 65 to 80 per cent of our daily conversations are about other people, so it can’t always be a bad thing, right?
Not that I’m advocating gossip, but even though it’s commonly frowned upon as mean-spirited and shallow conversation about a third party, it can also be harnessed as a tool to spread goodness (when used with the right intentions).
Gossip is often associated with negative connotations, but according to a University of Michigan study, gossip can in fact, give you a social edge by improving your odds of connection with others, lifting your mood and reducing stress – when used strategically. Applied wisely, gossip can have several benefits. Here’s the inside scoop on how you use it positively:
WORK THE GRAPEVINE
Small talk is our social currency. Pass on a good, quality tip and you can expect to be paid back in some form or another.
– Joseph Epstein, co-author of Gossip
Keep office gossip professional, and it can work in your favour. Frank T. McAndrew, a psychology professor at Knox College who published his research findings in Scientific American, explains, “In its rawest form, gossip is a strategy used by individuals to further their own reputations and interests at the expense of others.”
Successful gossiping however, entails being a good team player and sharing key information with others in ways that won’t be perceived as self-serving. For instance, filling your boss in on some staff “rumblings” can help to improve your standing with her – she’ll appreciate your on-the-ground intel and view you as tuned in.
And here’s another tip: if you’re unwittingly pulled into office gossip, avoid topics that involve personal matters and always, try to be nice. It never hurts to follow the golden rule, treat people the way that you would like to be treated.
SHARE A COMMON VOCABULARY
Sharing secrets is one way people bond, and sharing gossip with another person is a sign of deep trust: you’re signalling that you believe that the person will not use this sensitive information against you.
– Professor Frank T. McAndrew, Knox College
Avoiding gossip is a sure-fire way to segregate oneself from social situations, but if gossiping about people you know feels wrong anyway, try gossiping about celebrities. In the same way we bond with others over stories about people in our lives, we also bond with others when we engage in celebrity gossip, because sometimes, celebrities may be the only common “friends” that you and a co-worker share.
“At its core, our fixation on celebrities is reflective of an innate interest in the lives of other people,” explains Belgian psychologist Charlotte de Backer, the lead author of a published research paper which looked into the driving factors behind people’s interest in celebrity gossip. So keeping up with the latest celeb news can actually serve as easy conversation starters and get you out of awkward situations. Who knows, that immediate connection you feel as you gush over the same favourite celebrity may potentially blossom into a friendship!
SPREAD THE GOOD NEWS
Gossip can be bad, but we tend to overlook that it can be good as well. A lot of gossip is driven by concern for others and has positive social effects.
– Robb Willer, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Psychology, University of California, Berkeley
This is my personal favourite: using conversations about others for good.
Gossip doesn’t always have to be about bad news. Spreading positive news, such as a colleague’s promotion, or your best friend’s pregnancy, will reflect you as someone well-connected and tapped into the pulse of your social networks. You may even be doing the person a favour by sparing them the need to brag – just make sure you get clearance first by asking “is this confidential information or can I toot your horn?” When in doubt, always remind yourself: gossiping can be good, but being needlessly cruel is always bad.