Second in a three-part series on gossip.
Despite its well-earned bad press, psychologists are now discovering that gossip can sometimes be a tool for helping people work toward common goals; they call this pro-social gossip. For example, in small towns or cooperative groups, sharing information about a person's duplicity – pro-social gossiping – warns others in the community about that person’s hidden past behavior and anti-social inclinations. In this way, gossip can spread all kinds of useful information.
Pro-social gossip can thus “save” others from bad experiences and improve the community’s learning curve. It’s easy to see how such human cooperation yields enormous benefits, both practically and emotionally.
Gossip may serve yet another positive function in a group or community: it can deter “bad” behavior and inhibit selfishness. Working together as a group is important and necessary for government, commerce, agriculture and much more (see my post on Superorganisms). Nonetheless, our primitive aspect is generally a terrible collaborator. It’s sad to say, but this non-social part of us always wants to get more and give less.
The threat of gossip may be one way to rein in the primitive aspects of human nature. Greediness or overtly self-serving behavior can get people talking about you. Shifty business dealings, infidelity, taking credit you don't deserve, and ungenerous actions get people talking -- and people will know. In this way, the threat of gossip can serve as a warning and reminder of the cost of letting your primitive aspect rule the day.
So why the age-old taboo against gossip? Because gossip – a potential tool for social cohesion – is often used for personal gain, becoming mean-spirited and destructive. Gossip is damaging when it serves the selfish needs of the participants rather than protecting or educating people in the community about anti-social behavior. When we gossip to be “in the know,” entertain, satisfy a personal grudge, or bond with somebody else, then our chatter clearly isn’t for the greater good.
So how to tell the difference between useful and destructive gossip?
When you have an urge to gossip and pass on information, take a moment to reflect.
Consider your motives:
- Are they pure, or are you meeting a selfish personal need to feel superior, become part of a group, or settle a score?
- Does it give you value to share this gossip, or is it valuable to others?
- Are you gossiping just to entertain?
Consider your impact:
- Is there a danger in letting others learn about this person first-hand?
- Will your gossip help protect others from someone’s destructive ways?
- Who is likely to be hurt by your gossip? Are there going to be "innocent victims?"
- Can you really foresee the full impact of your words?
- Overall, will your news have a destructive or constructive impact on people whom you value or respect?
Consider your credibility:
- How confident are you about the source of your information?
- How will you feel if you discover that your gossip is inaccurate?
Keep in mind that gossip is like toothpaste: once it’s out of the tube, it’s impossible to get back in.