Avoiding gossip is one of those parental teachings that has stuck with me. My father would say “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” (sound familiar?). Prompted by a friend, I decided to see what the Bible says about this.
I found that there are surprisingly few occurrences of the word “gossip” in the Bible, but they all indicate a bad characteristic. A search of the NIV resulted in only 8 instances! Checking out a few other versions, I found the WEB has only 4 instances!
So now I’m wondering: Why this lifelong emphasis on the evils of gossip? and How did the WEB translation of the Hebrew/Greek result in only half the references?
A big clue to the difference:
29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; (Rom 1:29-30 NIV)
29 being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, malice; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil habits, secret slanderers, 30 backbiters, hateful to God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, (Rom 1:29-30 WEB)
Now I understand the emphasis on the dark side of gossip. But if it can be translated as “slander”, a very serious accusation, gossip seems kind of minor.
The academic definition of gossip is simply that
“you’re talking about someone who isn’t present”.
What?! I do this all the time! I thought gossip was supposed to be really bad!
Gossip Started with Our Ancient Ancestors
Social Psychologists tell us that when disparaging gossip, we overlook the fact that it’s an essential part of what makes the social world tick; the nasty side of gossip overshadows the more benign ways in which it functions.
In fact, gossip can actually be thought of not as a character flaw, but as a highly evolved social skill.
Evolutionary psychologists believe that our preoccupation with the lives of others is a byproduct of a prehistoric brain. According to scientists, because our prehistoric ancestors lived in relatively small groups, they knew one another intimately. In order to ward off enemies and survive in their harsh natural environment, our ancestors needed to cooperate with in-group members. But they also recognized that these same in-group members were their main competitors for mates and limited resources.
Living under such conditions, they faced several adaptive social problems: Who’s reliable and trustworthy? Who’s a cheater? Who would make the best mate? How can friendships, alliances, and family obligations be balanced? In this sort of environment, an intense interest in the private dealings of other people would have certainly been handy – and strongly favored by natural selection.
Recent Studies of Gossip
Only 15% of Gossip is Negative
New research published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science analyzed thousands of daily conversations to better understand the true nature of gossip. Contrary to conventional wisdom, gossip may not be as negative as we tend to think.
To arrive at their conclusion, researchers at the University of California Riverside analyzed daily conversations of 467 people over a multi-day period using an Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR, for short). EAR is a portable device that continuously samples sound from a wearer’s immediate environment. Participants were encouraged to wear the device all day during the test period. This allowed researchers to unobtrusively listen in on, and analyze, the contents of participants’ daily conversations.
Here’s what they found. First, the researchers reported that females gossiped significantly more than males (which is consistent with past research as well as general beliefs on gossip). They also found that extraverts and agreeable people tended to gossip more than others.
But it gets more interesting. The researchers separated gossip into three distinct categories:
- positive/flattering gossip,
- neutral gossip (i.e., observations about people that aren’t necessarily positive or negative),
- and negative/malicious gossip.
Examining these three categories separately, they found that younger people tended to gossip more negatively than older people. They also found that people with higher incomes tended to gossip more neutrally than people with lower incomes.
Perhaps most interesting, however, is what the researchers didn’t find. For one, when it came to evaluative gossiping, (positive/flattering and negative/malicious gossip), they found no evidence of a gender difference. They write,
"Despite popular notions, the most reliable evidence for women gossiping more than men was for neutral, rather than evaluative, gossip. The study revealed less consistent evidence for evaluative gossip and therefore did not support the notion that women evaluatively gossip more than men.”
Women are no more “catty” than men.
They also dispelled another common misconception—that poorer, less educated people engage in gossip more than the affluent. If anything, the results suggest the opposite.
The researchers were also interested in understanding how people gossip. In other words, what are the common topics, times of day, and conversation characteristics that define gossip? To start, they report that just about everyone gossips. (Only 34 individuals out of the 467 did not gossip at all.) Specifically, they estimate that the average person spends 52 minutes per day gossiping.
However, they note that most gossip (75%, to be exact) is non-evaluative, or neutral, in nature. Fifteen percent of gossip is negative while the remaining 10% is positive or flattering. They also note that gossip tends to be about acquaintances more than celebrities, and typically involves an exchange of social information rather than thoughts about one’s physical appearance or achievements.
Gossip Creates Relationships
In studies reviewed by Ellwardt, Steglich & Wittech, harmless gossiping in the workplace was found to build group cohesiveness and boost morale among colleagues.
Gossip also helps to socialize newcomers into groups by making them privy to group norms and values. In other words, listening to the judgments that people make about the behavior of others helps the newbie figure out what’s acceptable and what isn’t.
What’s more, gossip also fosters trust and closeness among friends, and can provide moral guidelines for behavior. Those who can’t do it well often have difficulty maintaining relationships, and can find themselves on the outside looking in.
Among a group of friends or coworkers, the threat of becoming the target of gossip can be a positive force; it can deter “free-loaders” and cheaters who might be tempted to slack off or take advantage of others.
I Just Couldn’t Help Myself
A 1993 observational study found that male participants spent 55% of conversation time and female participants spent 67% conversation time on “the discussion of socially relevant topics”.
They also found a physiological distinction to be drawn between active and passive participation in gossip. Matthew Feinberg, an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Toronto’s and his colleagues explored this in a 2012 study.
When subjects heard about another person’s anti-social behavior or an injustice, their heart rates increased. When they were able to actively gossip about the person or the situation it soothed them and brought their heart rates down. The act of gossiping, Feinberg explains, “helps calm the body.”
So, it could be a struggle to stop gossiping, but if you wish to do so, Sarah DiGiulio has some suggestions.
Criteria for Useful Gossip
A good gossiper is someone who people trust with information and someone who uses that information in a responsible way. If you find out your friend has a crush on someone with a bad reputation for cheating, you let your friend know, not to hurt your friend, but as a warning. You may find out someone in your company is not a team player and you let other coworkers know so that they can try to avoid working with that colleague.
A bad gossiper, on the other hand, is someone who shares confidential information about others in order to get ahead, get an advantage for themselves or is just reckless. Negative gossip is frequently a means of making perpetrators feel better about themselves by putting another person down. People don’t tend to trust “bad” gossipers with private information. “If someone is speaking negatively about my friends to me, they are likely to be doing the same thing to me behind my back.”
Research has indeed shown that a lot of gossip has both positive effects and moral motivations, explains Robb Willer, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Polarization and Social Change Laboratory at Stanford University, who studies the social forces that bring us together and drive us against one another, including gossip.
Studies from his group have shown that the more generous and moral among us are most likely to pass along rumors about untrustworthy people, and they report doing so because they are concerned about helping others. They call this type of gossip “prosocial gossip” because it serves to warn others — which has the effect of lowering overall exploitation in groups, Willer says. “A lot of gossip is driven by concern for others and has positive, social effects.”
Here’s how to make sure you’re gossiping in a responsible, trustworthy way:
1. Think Twice Before You Do It
Whether you’re gossiping in a responsible way or not is all a matter of when you’re doing it and with whom you’re sharing the information. Are you stabbing someone in the back by telling that story? Is that news going to stop something bad from happening?
If you’re doing it for your own personal gain, don’t; it’s probably not doing anyone any favors. “The form of gossip we’ve found beneficial is negative gossip about people who have behaved in an antisocial way,” Willer says.
Tell it like it is. Leave the exaggeration at the door, Willer says. “People often exaggerate what they pass on to make a better or more coherent story — or to justify why they are speaking about someone.” That’s not a responsible way of sharing information. Gossip doesn’t do a lot of good if its informational content is unreliable.
Despite multiple studies that reveal an upside to gossip, negative opinions about gossip are resistant to change.
Whether it’s workplace chatter, the sharing of family news or group texts between friends, it’s inevitable that everyone who talks, talks about other people. And that’s OK if we first ask ourselves: Is it true? Is it good? Is it useful?
You may not be able to always answer “yes” to all 3 questions, but always do your best. Some days are better than others.
To sum it up gossip is light talk about a person that may or may not be true but is often public knowledge, most often about family, friends and coworkers. Slander, on the other hand, are outright lies about a person’s actions or character and can seriously harm their reputation. It is good to remember that even though gossip is not illegal it can hurt a person’s feelings and reputation as well as damage relationships.
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… if you utter worthy, not worthless, words,
you will be my spokesman….(Jeremiah 15:19)
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Eph 4:29)