Dishing Dirt: How to Stop Harmful Gossip

Not all gossip is bad. Here’s how to quash the mean-spirited kind

By Katherine Ashenburg Published May 19, 2023 12:55:22 IST
Dishing Dirt: How to Stop Harmful Gossip illustration by Paige Stampatori

When I was in elementary school, the nuns told us, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.” Alice Roosevelt Longworth, President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter and a famous gossip, took the opposite view. She kept a pillow on her sofa, needlepointed with her still-popular motto, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”

People who study gossip define it as any talk about people who are not present. It can be positive, neutral or negative, but it’s the mean-spirited variety—Alice Longworth’s favourite—that has traditionally inspired disapproval. For many of us, hearing and telling scandalous stories counts as a guilty pleasure. And yet, gossip is by no means a black-and-white affair. We have a natural need for human connection, and gossip feeds that, for good and ill. Much depends on the motivation of the gossiper: are they aiming to warn people about a bad actor, or are they enjoying the malicious pleasure of spreading a harmful story? It comes down to curbing the mean variety while benefiting from the useful.

Why We Gossip

The reasons why people indulge in gossip or shun it are as individual as they are. In 20 years of friendship, I have never heard Lyndsay Green, a sociologist and author, dish the dirt about anyone. When I asked her why she never gossips, she traced her behaviour back to her school days—and her own sense of security.

“People telling hurtful secrets seem vulnerable,” she says. “They use gossip like a chip in gambling: ‘I’m going to throw this in, and I hope you will like me more.’” It’s a tactic that might work to gain connection in the short-term, Green surmises, but even as a kid, she doubted that it built true friendship.

Still, it’s a tempting habit—and many people can attest that there’s something undeniably seductive about being the bearer of scandalous news. For better or worse, a feeling of superiority can accompany having a juicy—and exclusive—piece of news to share. Dishing the dirt can feel fun, and it can also bring us together, tightening social bonds. The trick is learning the difference between the benign and the bad.

Some Gossip Is Good

Despite its bad name, the past few decades have seen an appreciation of gossip. Psychologists, sociologists and experts in organizational behaviour write that even snarkier gossip can be a powerful aid in bonding and social education. Criticizing those who have transgressed social norms, for example, encourages good conduct and serves as a deterrent to bad behaviour.

Scholars also hypothesize that the informational value of gossip was important for our ancestors: those who knew what was going on in the next cave were likelier to survive than more isolated individuals. While it’s not a life-and-death matter today, gossip’s informational function remains useful. Your colleagues’ speculation about the company’s change in leadership can keep employees in the loop. The same goes for potential developments in your community or neighbourhood.

Studies have also shown that gossip can alleviate loneliness, serve as a safety valve for frustration and stimulate the part of our brains that helps us deal with complicated relationships. It even calms down our bodies when it’s used to help others, says Matthew Feinberg, a professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. In one study, his subjects observed people cheating at a game. When they simply watched, their heart rates sped up, indicating their desire to tell the other players about the rule-breaking. When they were able to warn others, their heart rates returned to normal.

Motive Matters

Is your objective to be empathetic, compassionate or appreciative? Or is it something intended to wound or, as Green recognized, to increase your status? John Fraser, a journalist and author, relishes and values gossip. Fraser’s gossiping ticks some familiar boxes: he uses it to bond with people, to inform, to humiliate those he thinks deserve scorn and to celebrate ‘the human circus’.

“Only in rare circumstances do I believe in secrets,” he says. He likes “sharing stuff”, which includes others’ secrets, as well as his own. While Lisa Schmidt, a life coach and consultant, believes secrets should be respected, she agrees with Fraser on a key point: “Informational gossip greases the skids of the world.”

If permission is given, sharing sensitive information may provide an opportunity for compassion. Say you learn that two friends are divorcing. Passing on the information may spare them the emotional exhaustion of telling everyone themselves. The listener may also respond by reaching out in kindness to one or both members of the couple to assure them of support.

Break the Habit

Delicious as it can be to share gossip, the malicious kind can—and often should—leave a bad taste in your mouth. Pay attention to your conversation. How much of it is sneering or embroidering a discreditable story to make it even more shameful? Are you knowingly passing on information that is incomplete or incorrect?

Schmidt asks her clients, “Who do you want to be in the world?” If she notices a client disparaging others, she’ll hold a mirror up to the behaviour and say, “This is the language you’re using. Does that align with the person of integrity you say you want to be?”

Also, try to analyze yourself as a listener. When people regularly come to you with sniping gossip and you allow it, you’re creating a culture that feeds on meanness. You may simply say that you don’t want to engage in that kind of talk. But even a more subtle response works. I had a friend who, whenever I badmouthed someone, reminded me what was good about that person or about the difficulties in their life. Without ever commenting directly, she taught me that my gossiping was not going to be reciprocated. So I stopped.

Schmidt acknowledges that we won’t always get it right. But if we keep pulling ourselves back to the person we want to be, it will get easier to chat about people in ways that are still fun, but never cruel.

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