It flies around your office, your neighborhood, and definitely your kids’ school. But do you know how to spot the bad versus the good? (Yes, good gossip is a thing.) Here’s the dirt.
Gossiping is like eating cake for breakfast—temporarily thrilling, totally delicious, but leaves you feeling kind of icky. (Think about how many times you start a conversation with “I don’t want to gossip, but...”) The reason? You are talking about someone who isn’t there—and probably passing judgment. When it is especially malicious, gossip humiliates and demeans the subject. “Emotional pain and physical pain are processed in the same part of the brain,” says Erika Holiday, Psy.D., a psychologist in Los Angeles and a coauthor of Mean Girls, Meaner Women. “Gossip can hurt as much as being punched in the gut.”
So, What’s The Upside?
“Gossiping together strengthens bonds,” says Frank McAndrew, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois. “It’s a sign of trust: I’m taking a risk you will not use this information in a way that will come back to haunt either of us.” Kids gossip to learn how to get along in the group or as a means of intelligence. “We use it to learn who is friend and who is foe without having to experience it firsthand,” says Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and the author of How Emotions Are Made.
How to Do It Right
Aim for a “Goldilocks amount”—just enough to signal that you’re not completely aloof without gorging on the thrill of it, says Jennifer Cole, Ph.D., a researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University, in England, who has studied gossip extensively. (Joe got a bonus! Lucky dog! has a whiff of insider information but stays positive.) And assess your intentions. Are you talking out of genuine concern? I heard Susan’s cancer is back. I thought you might want to take her to dinner this week. Or is it titillation disguised as concern? Martha closed down the bar last night. Doesn’t she ever see her kids? Says McAndrew: “Gossip is a social skill, and like any skill, it takes practice.”
5 Familiar Types
From blabbing kids to vicious moms, the lowdown on gossip at every age.
Around the Playground
“I heard Eva has lice. Ewww!”
The Backstory: “Gossip is actually a big developmental leap for elementary-aged kids,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a child psychologist and the creator of the Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids video series. “Before that, if you have a problem with another kid, you hit, grab, or yell at him—or tattle.” Talking about others’ doings helps kids figure out how relationships work: who’s a meanie and what behaviors peers think are cool (or not).
How to Deal: Accept that some gossip is going to happen; it’s how kids learn about their social world. An often cited 2007 study videotaped 60 pairs of fourth-grade girls as they chatted for 15 minutes. On average, the girls engaged in a whopping 36 incidents of talking about other people in that short window, but most of it was neutral or positive. (Joe’s cute. I like him!) Only a few of the exchanges were potentially hurtful, notes researcher Kristina McDonald, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa. If you hear your child engaging in the crueler stuff, stress that words can hurt and urge her not to repeat and spread mean comments. Practice a few ready retorts. For example, in the face of bad-mouthing another classmate: “Well, she seems to like you.”
Among Middle-School Mean Girls
“OMG, she kissed Jack just to get attention.”
The Backstory: Malicious gossip runs rampant in middle school. “Kids are starting to figure out where they fit in the social pecking order outside the family, and it can be confusing and scary,” says Kennedy-Moore. Gossip is a way to build and strengthen cliques by ganging up on outsiders. Also, having the best dirt raises your status. (And, yes, boys gossip, too, but girls rely more on words as a means of aggression; boys tend to be physical.) “Gathering and controlling the flow of information is how popular girls stay on top," says Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D., a professor of humanities at the Penn State College of Medicine, in Hershey, Pennsylvania. False rumors can be a source of social control: Saying that someone tried to steal your boyfriend can cause the subject to be shut out. It’s all very Lord of the Flies.
How to Deal: Now is not the time to blow off an upset child with a chill “It’s just words.” Acknowledge how painful it is, says McDonald. Listen to your child talk. After she has time to process her emotions, you can add some of your perspective, give hugs, and urge your child not to respond with a blistering counteroffensive. That will probably launch an even uglier rumor war. “Research shows that the more kids get involved in gossiping—initiating or listening—the more they are targeted for gossip,” says Karin Frey, Ph.D., a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, in Seattle. Discuss the difference between being popular and being liked. (At this age, the two do not go hand in hand.) Encourage her to focus on her real friends, not where she is on the totem pole at the moment, tough as that may be. When it’s a friend being gossiped about, some kids have the social skills to constructively leap to that friend’s defense, says Frey. Such bravery should be encouraged. But for less confident souls, staying silent or walking away are options, too. “That doesn’t feed the fire,” says Frey. If your own daughter is the popular gossip, try to build up her empathy muscle by asking her to consider how the other girl might feel. Good news: The worst of it tends to abate in high school as kids grow more mature and empathy increases.
“She works late all the time with her new job. No wonder her kid acts out.”
The Backstory: You find grown-up gossips any place there’s power to be had, says Dellasega, who is also the author of Mean Girls Grown Up. (The PTA counts—big time.) “A woman who used this strategy to gain power in girlhood is likely to keep it up in adulthood. It just gets more polished,” she says. One tactic: faux concern. I’m worried about Jane—she has gained so much weight! However intimidating, this type of gossip often comes from a place of insecurity, says Holiday: “You’re less likely to put other women down when you feel good about yourself.”
How to Deal: With this insecurity in mind, try boosting the gossip’s self-confidence with a charm offensive. Thank you for all you do for our school. Let me bring the doughnuts to the book fair. Be pleasant; don’t engage. If the conversation drifts to speculating about a mutual friend’s flirtation with the UPS man, quickly change the subject. “People love to talk about themselves even more than they love talking about other people,” notes Oldham. “Say, ‘Hey, how’s the planning for your beach trip going?’” If a friend is the target, by all means speak up—immediately, before the talk picks up steam. (Something as simple as “Oh, that sounds like a rumor. I doubt it’s the whole story” will work.) It’s much easier to disagree with one person than to go up against a whole group, says Frey.
In the Office Elevator
“I heard that the head of John’s group hated his presentation.”
The Backstory: Just like back on the playground, gossip can clue you in to how to fit into a group culture: It’s OK to leave early on Fridays; don’t mess with the guy in accounting; always be 10 minutes early for the Tuesday meeting.
How to Deal: If you refuse to gossip at all, you’re saying, “I don’t care about being part of the group.” You can set yourself up as an outsider. Cole suggests befriending a good gossip in the first few weeks at a new job so you get the lowdown and she reports back to the crew with a good word about you. But be discreet, says Cole: “Successful gossiping is about sharing key information but also knowing when to keep your mouth shut. You don’t want to come across as self-serving”—strategically bad-mouthing a colleague up for the same promotion, say. McAndrew suggests you suss out which employees seem both well-respected and well-informed and try to follow suit. If the office busybody is always leaning into your cubicle, cut him off with “I’d love to chat, but I have this crazy deadline!”
At a Dinner Party
“Are you seeing the body language between the Smiths? Yeesh.”
The Backstory: “Couples evaluate their own relationship by comparing themselves to other couples,” says Geoffrey Greif, Ph.D., a professor of social work at the University of Maryland, in Baltimore, and the author of Two Plus Two. (I’m glad we don’t interrupt each other like Betsy and Ben do!) Observing positive ways that other couples interact can help strengthen your own relationship, but beware: It can also highlight insecurities. (It was so sweet how Dan kept complimenting Ali all night. Translation: Why don’t you compliment me in front of others?)
How to Deal: Use gossip about other couples as a jumping-off point to working on your own marriage, says Terri Orbuch, Ph.D., the author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great: “For example, ‘Can you believe he had an affair? What would you do if you ever felt dissatisfied and the opportunity arose?’” Best-case scenario: The conversation leads you to be more secure in your relationship—and less likely to gossip in the first place.