How Gossip Works

Juicy Tidbits

Happy People, Happy Gossip
In general, happy people spread positive gossip more often, and unhappy people spread negative gossip more often. In addition, people generally spread negative information about their enemies and positive information about their allies [References: New York Times, APA].

Gossip is full of contradictions. People do it even though they think they shouldn't. Gossip can bolster one person's reputation while destroying another's, and it can establish a trusting bond between two people while betraying the trust of a third. People who gossip too much can develop a reputation for being untrustworthy or too talkative. But people who don't gossip can develop a reputation for being distant, uptight or snobbish. These fictional examples explore the different sides of gossip and its moral implications.

Malice with a Purpose
Mickey, Amy and Joey are in elementary school. Mickey tells Amy that Joey failed a test. With this piece of gossip, Mickey establishes that he's smarter than Joey and implies that Amy is, too. Amy and Mickey position themselves as better than Joey, which can raise their social standing compared to him and the rest of the class.

This isn't a particularly kind piece of gossip, since it's likely to cause classmates to tease Joey and hurt his feelings. In addition, Mickey and Amy may have to continue to gossip about their classmates in order to maintain their more popular place within the social group. This is a common use for gossip -- people compare themselves favorably to others, raising their own status within a social circle while lowering someone else's. False or slanderous gossip usually works in much the same way.

Two girls checking out a mean phrase on a chalkboard after another girl wrote it

Us Versus Them
Mirabelle is a member of a choral group, and after being named one of the group's section leaders, she starts to slack off. She skips rehearsals, arrives late and leaves early. Two other members of the group, Gina and David, generally come early and stay late to help other members. They've also volunteered to organize and store all of the group's sheet music. One day, a new member named Michael joins the group. After rehearsal, Gina and David take Michael to dinner and fill him in about Mirabelle's habits.

This conversation allows all three people involved to form a bond -- in general, people who are united against a common hardship or enemy become closer to each other. In fact, the group as a whole might become stronger as it compensates for Mirabelle's shortcomings. This is another common use for gossip -- one study has even shown that the amount of gossip in a team environment peaks when the team views one of its members as inefficient or inept.

This piece of gossip also makes Michael aware of Gina and David's expectations of him. He gets advance warning of issues he might have with Mirabelle. However, some would argue that Gina and David are simply bad-mouthing a colleague rather than taking steps to address the problem.