The science of gossip – some moral consequences…

Gossip has a bad name, but we all do it.

I mean really – when an authority figure messes up regularly, people will talk. I have done that, I expect I will do that in future. It may be annoying to that authority figure, but what they do and say has tremendous impact on other people’s lives and we cannot be expected to ignore that.

Let’s get specific. I had a teacher at one point who was unclear about what he expected of students. He would also get angry and people for simply not knowing something. Of course his students talked about this. I think what we gossiped about can be boiled down to two categories: We discussed our frustration at not knowing how to deal with him and we discussed survival strategies.

Another way gossip is useful is simply as social grooming: it’s our way of letting others know we care.
We care when Jane gets a job and John decides to stay home with the kids. That is: we care if Jane and John are people we know.

That said: gossip can get out of hand. Sometimes people get gossiped about – and it turns out to be untrue. People have gossiped about me having an affair with a married older man. I have in fact never had an affair in my life (!) Though I mainly laughed it off, the most hurtful thing about this was that nobody actually came up to me to ask me whether it was fact. In fact, the only reason I know about the gossip is that the gossip itself was gossiped about.

Gossip like that can ruin peoples lives. In this case it didn’t, because the people involved knew for a fact what nonsense it was – but it could have made his marriage harder. Teacher careers get ruined regularly by teenage girls talking about having been approached by a male teacher. Such accusations should be taken seriously, but I’m afraid they are also untrue in many cases. The hard part is: when it IS true, it has to be taken seriously. But when it isn’t factual, or a teacher gets misunderstood, real damage gets done by the rumors and accusations themselves.

Social science confirms that gossip is to some extent healthy – in much the way that I have described above. But there are some guidelines to keep things in check:

  • Make sure you don’t talk to too many people about problems you are having at work. The effect of those problems getting gossiped about in the workplace can be far more damaging than the original problem was. Instead – where possible – talk to a few close friends about it, to get it off your chest.
  • Try to clearly distinguish between social and emotional problems on the one hand and practical changes that need to be made on the other. Talking to anybody about relational problems, at work for instance, will only make the problems grow. But practical solutions are the sort of thing that will get implemented if enough people get behind them: so that’s the sort of thing that one can and should ‘spread around’.
  • Limit yourself to talking about what you know is fact. Where possible stress positive explanations of those facts. Where a strange fact is explained in ways that are unkind, stress kinder solutions to the enigma. If a story keeps popping up, do the honorable thing: ask someone who is in a position to know the truth about it.

2 thoughts on “The science of gossip – some moral consequences…”

  1. Gossip has always been hard for me. I hate it, in fact. Although I do see the good points in it, not many people try to use it for things positive, that I can see. In small towns, it’s rampant and negative — whether it’s true or not. In most situations, it’s done to make the one gossiping feel better about himself or herself, and never mind who they hurt in doing so. Also, I have found that to gossip with colleagues about problems at work is a definite no-no for peaceful survival in the workplace. In EVERY place I have ever worked — from window washer to heading a department to management — just about anything you discuss can be spun to another’s advantage. To gossip at work is akin to handing over your weapons.

  2. Hi Mimi. You have not worried with other employees whether the business was going well? You have not talked about so&so’s hair? You have not shared your admiration of so&so’s way of dealing with customers? You have not wondered who was doing it with whom?


    I agree that the negative can outweigh the positive – easily. The scientific point is that people are not usually trying to up their own ego, they are also making friends with the people they talk to and share their gossip with.

    Of course this may just be one more instance of scientists describing what’s normal, instead of what is ideal.

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