I am a gossip. I love a good scandal, love a good moan. I would happily watch Gossip Girl all day everyday if I could and if it wasn’t ruined by its stupid ending. In many ways, I even resent the stability in my own life for not being dramatic enough. As much as I wish I wasn’t, I’m definitely a messy bitch who lives for the drama.
I also know it’s not just me. I know people who openly brag about being shit stirrers, and group chats are rife with discussion about engagements, cheaters and pregnant former schoolmates. There’s a full industry built on celebrity gossip magazines, political punditry on unfolding scandals and newspapers printing the intimate details of people’s personal and professional lives. We like to know other people’s shameful secrets, we like to watch twists and turns unfold. If Kim Kardashian’s weekend antics don’t peak your interests, then perhaps Boris Johnson’s will. While you get the odd saint that claims (and maybe isn’t even lying) that they’re not interested in petty gossip, most of us are, especially when it’s someone we know.
At a very basic level, gossip might seem like harmless fun; as long as the person doesn’t know, and the information has been acquired in a legitimate way (probably a facebook status), then what harm can you plausibly cause?
But what makes something gossip worthy? Thinking about it, a good piece of gossip has to be at least one of two things. Firstly, and sadly, it probably has to require at least the potential for someone getting hurt. A cheating scandal is the classic one, but the same might be said of a jilting, someone who’s embarrassed themselves or someone who’s done something very wrong to someone else. It’s the case for any kind of gossip that revolves around someone’s bad or out of order behaviour. Unless, maybe, they’ve had a run in with the law in some victimless or righteous crime. Gossip often requires a negative to thrive; it makes it all the more shocking and emotional.
“But what about when I gossip about a positive?” you ask. “Sometimes, I talk about people’s engagements and pregnancies.” A good gossip or bitch often requires another, second factor; us making our own judgment about what someone is doing. Take a look at your group chats. How often is this judgment actually a positive one? Or is it absurd that someone’s getting engaged too young, or has another new boyfriend? I am the first to admit I can be quick to pass judgment on other people, but when we do this, we in effect undermine and ridicule something that makes someone happy. We occasionally might be genuinely happy for someone, but in reality this probably isn’t true gossip.
So when we delight in gossiping, what are we actually enjoying? It seems like we’re either benefitting from someone else’s misery, or we’re undermining their happiness. While doing so might not be causing an active harm to a person, it certainly isn’t nice. Therefore, when it comes to whether I am, in fact, a ‘nice’ person, it seems like my living for the drama doesn’t really work at all.
If this is so unpleasant, then why do we want to do it? Psychologists posit that gossiping began as an aid to social bonding, and as a means of gaining knowledge about someone without actually talking to them. This becomes useful in a network so big you couldn’t possibly speak to everyone. These days, we have social media to do most of the leg work for us. However, we only get the information that someone else wants us to see (and social media knows this; see pinned tweets and featured photos for examples). A real scandal now is something off grid that they haven’t told anyone. By which I mean, they’ve told someone, who was very much the wrong person to tell. While the scandal is rooted in a mistrust, we want to know about people, and it’s a natural curiosity that gets the better of us. We want to know as much as possible; when we get good gossip, mean as it may be, it satisfies.
So, as much as gossip isn’t great, it is very much a natural part of being a messy, flawed
human being. It’s observed as being cross-cultural, and it’s something we’ve evolved to do. As bad is it may be, it’s a bad thing that everyone does, like fancying other people when we’re dating or being really gross when we’re alone. Not only that, it does perform a few good functions. Firstly, we have all said something rude behind someone’s back that we would never dare say to their face. We wouldn’t do that because it would hurt them, or damage the relationships around you. We say it behind their back because we want to say it, and we don’t want there to be repercussions. While ideally it would be better to keep your mouth shut, sometimes it’s best for your own well being that it comes out, and does so without directly hurting anyone. It’s not the best situation, but can be better than saying it face-to-face, or worse, through a public forum. Think how much drama could be avoided if indirect tweeting, or loudly saying that you’ve got no faith in your leader at the Tory Party conference, didn’t happen.
An undeniable consequence of my gossip habit is also that I’ve learned a lot about myself from the way I talk about other people. And that’s not just about the characteristics I dislike in other people, but also the characteristics I dislike in myself. Because funnily enough, sometimes the things that I can be very cruel to other people about are actually things that I’m very guilty of too, and when I say it out loud, I realise. The best, and most ironic given the subject matter, example of this is a friend I had when I was younger. A friend who I came to hate. The reason I did was because she talked about everyone – friends, enemies, boys, girls – behind their back. She had a viciously mean word to say about everyone, and in the end I felt very fed up. However, upon deciding I hated her, she became one of my favourite topics; I loved being horrible about how horrible everything she did was.
Sooner or later, the hypocrisy of my own actions did hit me. I learned that, as much as I
disliked that mean streak in her, I had a pretty big one myself. I might not have realised this so suddenly if I’d not been caught out on my obvious double standards. And the same has been true of a lot of my gossip. I’ve been rude about people when I’ve felt inadequate by comparison; rude about people who I think I actually wanted to be my friend; rude about someone because their actions hurt me and I wasn’t ready to admit it. It took time, and hindsight is 20/20. But reflecting on these conversations has been an invaluable tool in learning this.
Another important one, again coming from the psychologists on Wikipedia, is that it gives us information on social norms and guidelines for our behaviour. If we’ve never been through a situation, we might not know just how much it could hurt us, or how wrong an action was perceived. Gossip is a way in which we learn about this, by hearing other people’s reactions to a situation we’re not directly affected by. It’s another way of developing social and emotional intelligence, even if it’s not the nicest one.
I’m not positing that gossip is a good thing; in fact, I’d argue that it’s really quite a bad thing that we ought to try and limit. However, when kept reasonable, being interested in gossip doesn’t make you a bad person in and of itself. We all do it; it’s part of our learning and our outlet. Maybe one day we can be better, but for now, we’re all messy bitches. And that’s (mostly) okay.