The word gossip is loaded with negative connotations: usually, bitchy repartee by the water-cooler. But it isn’t always salacious – gossip can also be the good kind.
Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari described gossip as being fundamental to our species’ survival, while a 2012 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gossip played a critical role in maintaining social order. And that it could even be therapeutic.
Natascia Brondino, research fellow in psychiatry at the University of Pavia in Italy, ran a study two years ago to discover just that. She defined gossip as “speaking of someone who is not present, which is a very broad definition.”
Brondino was inspired to run the study after noticing that her own team was a lot closer when they gossiped. She wondered whether it might have more of a social function. What she found was correct: gossip could have a positive impact on groups of friends.
“We observed that compared to a conversation aimed at eliciting sympathy,” she says, “gossip determined a higher increase in oxytocin levels. Oxytocin is the so-called 'love hormone', a molecule involved in the formation of social bonding. This may be the neuroendocrinological basis of the bonding effect that gossip exerts in communities.”
When gossip becomes harmful is when it’s simply untrue, or highly negative.
And it’s important to know the difference. Brondino says: “Bad gossip is about humiliating someone: there is no real knowledge about the trustworthiness of someone, it seems a method to exclude someone who is different from the others.”
Amy Hutson who runs a private practice for young people and adults, says: “Emotions can be contagious so, if the gossip is heavily focused around negativity, it might become unhealthy. Gossip is often based on subjective opinions rather than facts, so it’s important to remember that so it doesn’t negatively influence your relationships with others.”
We’ve all been in situations where we might not necessarily agree with what someone is saying, but agree regardless because it seems to be the way to fit in. That’s when group gossiping can become dangerous.
“Negative thinking can have a serious knock-on effect,” says clinical director of Harley Therapy, Sheri Jacobson. “Cognitive behavioural therapy talks about the 'thinking error cycle', where negative thoughts create negative feelings, and those negative feelings create negative actions - which lead to another negative thought, and on the cycle goes.
“Think about the last time a catch up was negatively gossipy or complaining. Did you suddenly feel tired and miserable, and perhaps then take a negative action? Like having a few extra glasses of wine when you said you wouldn’t, as you have an early start the next day? And did you then have negative thoughts about your lack of self control, and start the cycle again?
“Now you can see how it works, you might find that the next time you are trapped in a group moan you either speak up or go home.”
When gossip is information sharing – so for instance, telling a group something they may not know – it bonds people closer together. When the subject of the gossip is sharing information about bad behaviour – like witnessing someone cheating – it can actually relieve stress.
In the 2012 study, UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, a co-author, said that when a person witnessed a bad act, their heart rate went up. But their heart rate went down once they were able to share the information with someone else.
Gossip can be expanded to include catching up with friends. Jacobson says: “Catching up with real friends can definitely feel therapeutic. Friends we trust create a space for us to talk through any issues and feel supported. And when they share with us in return, it gives us a chance to feel useful and valued.
“The underlying element of a catch up with friends is connection. We connect when we can be ourselves, can be fully open and available, and feel seen and heard. And connection has been linked by research to an impressive set of benefits, from better physical health and longevity, to less anxiety and depression.”
Hutson agrees. “Feeling understood, valued and listened to are important to all of us and I think catching up with friends can offer a safe space where you can share what’s going on for you. They might sound like simple things but being truly listened to without any interruption can be incredibly helpful.”
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