The word gossip originally just meant chatting with our “godsibs” or what we now refer to as godparents or people we are particularly close to. Most of us have experienced the sharing or telling of other people’s information outside of these close-knit circles.
Research shows that up to two-thirds of all conversations include some reference to third-party happenings. Another study found that gossip accounts for approximately 65% of speaking time, with only limited variations across age and gender.
According to researcher Ralph Rosnow, gossip serves three fundamental functions: to inform, to entertain and to influence.
Workplace studies indicate that the more a person engages in any type (positive or negative) of gossiping, the more informal influence co-workers give to that person. However, the more a person engages in gossip activity, the lower the supervisor rates that person‘s work-related performance.
Further, when a gossiper spreads positive news about others, gossip recipients tend to think the gossiper will also spread good news about them and may bestow reward power to the gossiper.
Gossiping creates a momentary sense of satisfaction that “I know something that you don’t.” For one second our egos feel a stronger sense of self than the other person does. This gaining an advantage over others is the underlying drive behind celebrity gossip magazines, political scandals and bullying.
This ego inflation is also seen when we mention names of people who are deemed important or famous. By association with someone with a collective identify, one gains a sense of superiority. As Eckhart Tolle stated in A New Earth, “the absurd overvaluation of fame is just one of the many manifestations of egoic madness in our world.”
Some research suggests a positive function of gossip. In one study, heart rates of players in a football game were measured. When players observed other players cheating, their heart rates increased. When they were able to slip a “gossip note” to fellow players to warn them, their heart rates went down. So, we may be physiologically compelled to spread news.
Another study found that gossip plays a role of protecting or warning others from being exploited by passing on information about bad behavior or experiences. A co-author of the study explained, “If you tell people that this person is a selfish jerk, people learn to avoid the exploitive jerk.”
A further study showed that simply knowing that one’s actions would be visible to the group and the opportunity for gossip was high, selfish behaviour in the participants was noticeably less.
Rosnow further stated that gossiping serves as an instrumental transaction in which people trade small talk for status, power, fun, intimacy, money, information, or some other resource with the intent to fulfill needs, wishes or expectations.
Indeed, we need to bring awareness to the intent behind sharing any information. In some cultures, talking about someone who is not present is highly frowned upon. Similarly, we might ask – Would we be sharing this information about someone if that person were present? A good rule might be – Don‘t tell anybody’s mad, sad, bad or even glad news.