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 the magazines, websites or TV shows that call themselves “entertainment news.”
Nigel Nicholson, Ph.D., writes in Psychology Today that gossip is a guilty pleasure that serves 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 need to impress others and feel connected to them by sharing information, thereby making us feel closer to one another.
These theories make sense, but I’ll go a step further. 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 media gossip about celebrities. If it could speak, this motivation would say, “If I talk about other people’s weaknesses, then I’ll feel better about my own.”
A reasonable, honest person presents objectively verifiable facts in context. For example, “I know this for certain. This, I don’t know for certain, but can assume. And, lastly, here’s what I don’t know.” Gossip consists of “facts” that might or might not be true, and are rarely verifiable. For example: “So-and-so says….” Or, “So-and-so feels….” Or, “I heard that so-and-so….”
Gossip might start as an attempt to know the truth, but it collapses under the desire to paint fantasy as fact; relying on the unspoken premise that partial fiction is better than no information at all. Gossip, as the saying goes, is the “hobgoblin of little minds.” There’s no question that the minds that engage in gossip are belittled.
Objectivity is essential to avoiding the allure of gossip. I know that “objectivity” sounds like the exclusive domain of high-minded scientists and (some) journalists, but in fact it applies to all of us. And we owe it to ourselves to remain mentally fit and grounded in reality.
Years ago at a grocery store I saw a headline about some celebrity in one of the more notorious tabloids. I forgot about it, until something involving that person 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 out of loyalty to the celebrity, but out of loyalty to myself to only know the truth. Because any connection to reality in these papers is purely coincidental, I resolved, right then and there, not to read any more tabloids. (It helps to use the automated checkout.)
Interestingly, people with high self-esteem feel little need to gossip. Those who hold themselves in high regard are concerned with their own lives, not half-truths about people they don’t know.
Of course, it’s not always wrong to learn about what other people do, as with credible biographies or objective news stories (if they still exist). We all need to know what’s going on around us in order to develop into thinking people. 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 to feel superior for its own sake; a hollow victory built on others’ (perceived or fabricated) imperfections.
What a waste! People who take their own lives seriously don’t need to retreat into baseless chatter about others. When I counsel the occasional insecure person who worries about what others might be thinking or saying, I usually respond, “Don’t worry about them. People who gossip have already revealed something about themselves. And what they reveal proves that you have nothing to fear from them.”
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