Why we love to gossip

We all know we shouldn’t talk about people behind their backs, but sometimes we can’t help ourselves. Whether we’re among family, at work or with friends, what’s really behind these shameful, but oh-so-enjoyable little betrayals? By Cécile Guéret


Why we love to gossip

Helena got a pay rise. I’m not surprised, the way she flirts with the boss,’ grumbles a colleague who’d like to be promoted herself. ‘That skinny minnie? I’m sure she’s anorexic,’ replies her friend.

Ah, the comfort of gossip. A few spiteful words shared in confidence can give us such a boost. With friends, colleagues or family, saying bad things about other people feels good.

However much we may disapprove in theory, it’s very common behaviour, says social psychologist Laurent Bègue. ‘About 60 per cent of conversations between adults are about someone who isn’t present,’ he says. ‘And most of these are passing judgement.’

We all know it’s wrong to gossip, and no one wants to seem malicious. So why do we indulge in this guilty pleasure? Gossip builds social bonds because shared dislikes create stronger bonds than shared positives. Two people who don’t know each other will feel closer if they share something mean about a third person than if they say nice things about them. It’s a way of demonstrating their shared values and sense of humour. Add to that the thrill of transgression, since we’re supposed to be nice and positive.

‘Our appetite for gossip is insatiable,’ says the critic Nicholas Lezard. ‘Sometimes, the heart sinks as we hear the words “Don’t tell this to a soul”. Oh dear, here comes another personal matter we are going to have to pass on to someone else, with the same caveat. What kind of person wouldn’t?’ Saying bad things means you risk looking bad, so a gossip shows that they really trust the person they are talking to. This then makes the other person feel more inclined to share their own secrets.

Gossip does have a positive function in establishing the values of a group. It shows the boundaries, using shame to persuade new arrivals to follow the rules if they want to fit in. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar has suggested that gossip is a vital evolutionary factor in the development of our brains; language came about because of the need to spread gossip, and not the other way round. Gossip allows us to talk about people who aren’t present; it also allows us to teach others how to relate to individuals they have never seen before.

‘Listening to gossip told me a lot about my new workplace,’ says Melanie, 38. ‘For example, it’s considered remiss not to phone your children several times a day, whereas in my old job, personal calls were banned.’ Gossip also aids social climbing. We talk about our rivals’ failings and disasters and we enjoy taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. It’s hard to hide a smile when we learn that the sister-in-law we can’t stand is having a tough time – even if it’s with a twinge of shame.

Where does this nastiness come from? ‘Being mean begins at an early age when children compare themselves with others,’ says psychoanalyst Virginie Megglé. Forbidden to bite or hit, they turn to verbal violence. ‘They want to remain their parents’ favourite, and so devalue their friends,’ she continues. ‘To reassure themselves they are normal, they say bad things about anyone who is different’.

However, there are other aspects to gossiping. ‘We gossip to share our worries, seeking reassurance and support,’ says psychiatrist Frédéric Fanget. ‘It’s an indirect way of speaking well of yourself, and your listeners. It’s also fun to arouse others’ curiosity and monopolise the conversation, when you have information to reveal. A woman who says in her partner’s ear, “Have you seen the length of my sister’s skirt? It’s outrageous!” may be trying to reassure herself that she’s as sexy as her sister. This is what leads us to target anyone who makes us feel uneasy about our weaknesses. Gossiping about them provides a sense of reassurance.’

‘There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Homer finds himself in possession of information about his neighbour, Flanders, which would amuse the whole town,’ says Lezard. ‘He glosses over his decision to pass this on – if anything so swiftly done can actually count as a decision, rather than an instinct – with the sentiment “It’ll make me feel important, without being drunk. That’ll be weird.” This is one of the crucial essences of gossip: it makes us feel superior.’

‘Through projection, we may attribute one of our own faults, perhaps one we are in denial about, to someone else,’ says Megglé – for example saying, ‘She’s obsessed with her career’ when we’re fiercely ambitious ourselves, because gossip isn’t necessarily malicious. Why tell people that the new team leader was given an official warning in his old job? It could be imitation (your parents always gossiped), rationalising an emotion (fear of competition), or information gathering: if you make random statements, others will correct them.

Gossip can be a risky activity: it can quickly lead to awkwardness, and distrust. It leaves the victim unable to defend themselves, and can leave a trail of suspicion.

‘Once a person’s reputation is tarnished, it’s very difficult to reverse that,’ says Bègue. Interestingly, research has shown that we judge negative information to be more revealing than positive facts, and retain it better. But gossip can, most surprisingly, also be put to good use. ‘When you recognise the aggression within yourself vented in gossip, this can lead to greater self-knowledge and acceptance of your darker side, says Megglé. ‘We gossip when we feel unfairly treated. Once you stop feeling like a victim, the energy you invested in that activity can be focused on self-development instead.’

With this newfound sense of security, a gossip no longer feels the need to put others down in order to feel good.