Three women gossip while walking in the park
(Photo: Getty/Catherine Falls Commercial)

You’re Thinking About Gossip All Wrong

It’s not all negative

Three women gossip while walking in the park
Getty/Catherine Falls Commercial
Nandini Maharaj

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Let’s admit it: We all gossip. You and your neighbor break down the details of the couple moving in next door. Your group chat is filled with the latest intel on your ex’s new partner. You and your co-worker sometimes just need to rant about your boss’s latest request.

Gossip is our way of staying connected and sharing information with each other. It isn’t inherently bad, but it does have the potential to turn unhealthy. Spotting the difference between harmless chitchat and malicious rumors can save your mental health—and your relationships.

What Is Gossip?

It’s simple. Gossip occurs when you have a conversation about another person who is not present, says Elizabeth Fedrick, a licensed professional counselor and professor of psychology at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. Typically, what’s shared tends to be of a personal, intimate, or sensationalized nature and may include judgment or criticism of the person being discussed. For example, you may hear that a coworker has a history of stealing ideas and taking credit for them. In this instance, gossip can tell you who to trust and who might take advantage of you (i.e.on’t share the presentation with him before sending it to your boss).

“Gossip can be true or speculative, positive or negative, but a key characteristic is that it tends to be based on information that isn’t widely known,” says Michelle Felder, a licensed clinical social worker and the founder and CEO of Parenting Pathfinders.

What Do We Get Wrong About Gossip?

Gossip isn’t always negative. When you’re sharing messages on Slack with your coworkers or gabbing in person, your discussions may be harmless and often even positive, especially when they include praise or compliments. Gossip turns negative when it’s used to tarnish someone’s reputation or is based on unfounded rumors.

The Three Types of Gossip

1. Positive Gossip

If you’ve connected with a new friend or coworker after a gossip session, you’re not the only one. “Sharing information creates a sense of camaraderie as you bond over topics that are sensitive or captivating,” Felder says. Gossip can be a way to test the waters—and gain helpful insights. Discussing a friend who quit her job before having another lined up may prompt your conversation partners to share their own concerns about finances or making rash decisions. You could leave the conversation feeling validated about your own opinion and even more understanding of the perspectives of others.

2. Neutral Gossip

This type of conversation doesn’t have to fall to an extreme. It could just be informational. A 2019 meta-analysis published in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that gossip was more likely to be neutral than positive or negative.

The researchers noted that neutral gossip tended to be about mundane (and often boring) topics, like how someone watched a lot of movies to stay current. For example, mentioning to your partner that your friend recently got a promotion is merely conveying information without evaluating whether it’s good or bad news. In this case, you’re reserving judgment about whether your friend deserved the promotion—or simply got lucky. You’re simply updating.

3. Negative Gossip

Traditionally, the word “gossip” conjures up negativity, and there are certainly times when it can be hurtful and damaging to relationships, Fedrick says. For example, after a frustrating conversation with a friend, you may mention to your mutual acquaintance that this person seemed rude and unstable. Even if this comment was the reflection of your less-than-ideal chat, rather than an objective reflection, your confidant may continue to hold judgment on your friend.

Life isn’t perfect, and sharing the messy parts is normal. But negativity can reflect poorly on you. To avoid veering into negative gossip, try shifting into a problem-solving approach. By offering a warning, fixing a situation, or exploring how to resolve a conflict, you focus on a specific case example, instead of harming someone’s personal reputation.

What Can You Do If Negative Gossip Is Making You Uncomfortable?

Even if gossip isn’t harmful from time to time, that doesn’t mean you’re obligated to grin and bear negative comments. Set conversational boundaries as needed.

Keep in mind people gossip for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes they’re trying to gain acceptance by showing that they’re part of the in-group, or it could be that they’re simply bored. Whatever the reason, if they’re making you uncomfortable, stay true to yourself. You can’t control other people, but you always decline to participate, Felder adds.

Lead Photo: Getty/Catherine Falls Commercial