Objective facts and self-esteem are the enemies of gossip

Nobody wants to be known as a gossip. But, let’s face it: One way or another, many of us engage in gossip to some degree. Even if you never open your mouth, you’re contributing to gossip if you patronize (or even believe) the magazines, websites or television shows politely labeled “entertainment news.”

In Psychology Today, Nigel Nicholson, Ph.D. writes that gossip is a “guilty pleasure” serving three essential purposes: networking, influence and alliance. Networking refers to the value people gain from impressing others by being ‘in the know.’ Influence and alliance refer to the human need to impress other people and feel connected to them by sharing information about others, thereby making us feel closer to one another.

These theories make sense, but my take on gossip is somewhat different. I view gossip as a compulsion to talk about other people, regardless of the facts, for the express purpose of feeling better about yourself. The same motivation applies to listening to, or reading about gossip related to celebrities. This motivation, if it could speak, would say, “If I talk about other people’s weaknesses, then I’ll feel better about my own weaknesses.”

Information consists of objectively verifiable facts. A reasonable, honest person presents these facts in context. For example: “Here is what I know for certain. Here is what I don’t know for certain, but can assume, given what we do know. And, lastly, here is what we don’t know—but need to know.” The motive of information gathering is to conform to reality and to identify the truth. Gossip consists of “facts” that might or might not be true, and are rarely, if ever, objectively verifiable. For example: “So-and-so says— Or, “So-and-so feels— Or, “I heard that so-and-so—

Gossip is not the same as lying. Lying is absolute and deliberate. Gossip might start as an attempt to know the truth, but it collapses in the desire to paint fantasy as fact; relying on the unspoken premise that partial fiction is better than no information at all. Gossip, it used to be said, is the “hobgoblin of little minds.” There’s no question that the minds that engage in gossip are belittled—even more than the subject of the gossip itself.

Objectivity is essential to avoiding the allure of gossip. I know that ‘objectivity’ sounds stuffy, remote and the exclusive concern of high-minded scientists and (some) journalists, but this is a myth. Objectivity applies to all of us. It’s an obligation we owe to ourselves in order to remain mentally fit and grounded in reality.

I remember, years ago, reading an article about some celebrity in one of the most notorious supermarket tabloids of the day, The National Enquirer. (I was trapped in a long checkout line—honest!) I put the magazine down, feeling a little bemused about what I read, and then forgot about it—until something involving that celebrity came up later in conversation. I found myself thinking, ‘Where did I read this? Was it true, or was it just some tabloid?’ This concerned me, not because of some misguided loyalty to the celebrity, but out of loyalty to my own mind to only know the truth. Because any connection to reality in a tabloid article is, most often, purely coincidental, I resolved, right then and there, not to read any more tabloids. (Using the express checkout helps.) I also do my best to steer clear of gossip about people and things about which I’ll never know the full truth.

As a professional psychotherapist, I have learned that people with high self-esteem feel little need to gossip. Those who hold themselves in high regard are concerned with advancing their own lives and their own interests, not wasting time indulging in half-truths about people they’ll never meet or know.

I don’t mean to imply that it’s always wrong to learn about what other people do or think, as in reading or watching credible biographies or objective reporting about things that happen in the world. We all need to understand the truth about what’s going on around us to be informed, educated and to develop into thinking people.

But if, in Dr. Nicholson’s words, humanity is a ‘beehive of communication,’ then gossip is the equivalent of getting stung. It doesn’t concern itself with truth, it has the potential to hurt, and is motivated by a need to feel superior. Superior to what? Though the person who gossips probably isn’t conscious of it, I can tell you from my own observations that the motive is simply to feel superior for its own sake. Sadly, it’s a hollow sense of superiority built not upon one’s own accomplishments, but on others’ (perceived or made up) imperfections.

What a waste! People who take their own lives seriously don’t need to retreat into chatter about others with little or no regard for the facts. This is one reason why, when I counsel insecure people who worry about what others might be thinking or saying about them, I usually respond: ‘Don’t worry about them. People who engage in gossip have already revealed something about themselves. And what they reveal proves that you have nothing to fear from their opinion.’