Most of us cannot resist a juicy story about an acquaintance, or a spectacular secret from a friend. What is it about gossip that is so appealing to us? Evolutionary psychologists believe that our obsession with other people is the result of a primitive brain. Our ancestors lived in small groups and knew one another well. They had to keep away enemies and survive in a harsh environment. So, they needed to co-operate with the people around them. But it was also a fact that these same people were their main rivals for limited resources.
Living so, our ancestors faced many social problems: who’s reliable and trustworthy? How can one balance friendships, alliances, and familial relationships? In this environment, natural selection would have favored interest in other people’s private matters. People who were the best at utilizing their social skills were more successful. Abilities to interpret, predict – and influence – other’s behavior were useful.
Gossipers with strong social skills are usually powerful and popular members of their social groups. Telling secrets is a key way through which humans bond. Sharing gossip with someone is a sign of trust. Therefore, someone owning this skill will have a good affinity with a large number of people. At the same time, they’ll have undisclosed information about what’s going on throughout the group.
On the other hand, refusing to participate in gossip may end up leading to social isolation. In the workplace, harmless gossiping with colleagues can boost morale. Many studies confirm that gossip is useful in a variety of scenarios to hold individuals responsible. When individuals violate expectations and group norms, they become targets of gossip and ostracism. This, in turn, burdens them to become improved members of the group.
Then why is gossip so infamous? Gossiping is often used as a bullying tactic and can have many disastrous consequences in organizations, families, or on social media. People spread malicious rumors or morph the truth in a way that can benefit them. This can have a very negative impact on the psychology of the affected person, as well as interpersonal relationships in society.
The conclusion is: we need to think deeply about the role of gossip in everyday life. There’s no need to stop it altogether or to be ashamed of it. We must ensure it’s harmless and doesn’t negatively impact anyone. Successful gossiping amounts to being a key team player and sharing useful information with others. We should do so in ways that aren’t perceived as self-serving. One should be mindful of when it’s appropriate to speak, and when it’s best to keep quiet.