The Gossip Train: Hidden Virtues

The Gossip Train is Ombuzz’s series of blog posts on all things gossip. We will explore the origins of gossip, why we gossip, the joys and dangers of gossip, and what you can do when gossip is not helpful!

In the workplace context, business leaders warn that gossip is dangerous and harmful. They suggest it’s a threat to an organization’s health and stability because it decreases morale and wastes employee’s time. However, despite its bad reputation and what we shared in the previous two Ombuzz posts The Gossip Train: A Vicious Cycle and The Gossip Train: The Dark Side, gossip isn’t inherently bad – it’s not always malicious or untrue and plays an important role in keeping our society connected. In fact, it can be good, and gasp! – even useful. Research shows gossip started as a way for humans to learn about their neighbors and determine who they could trust. It is part of our survival: who has powerful friends, who is sleeping with whom, who has limited resources, and who might stab you in the back when times get tough. Despite the fact that gossip is endowed with many meanings, most agree it is sharing information or experiences that are not your own.

In The Gossip Train: Why do We Gossip?, we discussed the various reasons people gossip: good and bad. This unearthed some positive reasons including the reality that despite people saying they don’t like gossip, most people love to do it because it’s enjoyable and encourages social bonding. Interestingly, adults spend up to two-thirds of their conversational time gossiping, and only five percent of it is spent on negative gossip.1 

What makes gossip good, bad or neutral isn’t so much the content of the information. Rather, it is how we use it. Gossiping is a social skill and teaches us who to trust. Sharing reputational information about others assists people in identifying trustworthy and cooperative individuals. Uncooperative folks become more cooperative because they get ostracized for bad behavior. For example, if sharing information helps coworkers avoid the adverse effects of a norm-violating peer, then this is a form of positive gossip. It is also positive when a person observes the norm-violation and shares the outcome because this can help others correct their behavior. 

In other words, good gossipers use information in a responsible way. For instance, you heard stories about your friend’s crush revealing a pattern of cheating. You want to warn your friend. Or perhaps you want to warn your co-workers about a colleague who is known for not being a team player. You are sharing the information out of concern for others. This is considered prosocial gossiping and helps maintain social order.

Examples of good gossip can also include talking about how well a colleague or family member did on a project or exam. How much someone deserved their promotion. Talking about a co-worker’s strengths and skills. Mentioning how a new team member picked things up so quickly and really hit the ground running. Telling your network how much you enjoy Ombuzz. (shameless plug). 

Not to mention, gossip is an excellent efficiency (and anyone who knows me, knows I am all about efficiency). While most people would eventually learn through observation what they learn through gossip, gossip expedites learning how to behave and how to understand social cues. 

When people gossip, they: 

  • Entertain each other 
  • Influence others 
  • Exchange important information – this is often positive information!
  • Learn how to behave socially, point out and enforce social rules/group norms
  • Learn from others’ mistakes 
  • Establish, develop, and maintain relationships with others
  • Create strong group bonds
  • Define social status within a group
  • Assess and manage reputations
  • Resolve conflicts

These are all hidden virtues of gossip. So how can we make sure we use gossip positively, help others and foster a healthy work environment? 

Consider these common scenarios:

My colleague confides in me that they are experiencing health issues. Is it gossip if I tell others without their knowledge or permission? Yes. Is it positive or prosocial gossip? It depends. What is your intention for sharing? Are you sharing it to be critical or judgmental? Or are you sharing it to provide context and information someone needs to get their job done or explain why you missed a meeting? Are there other options? What could be the potential impact of sharing? If people are asking questions, can you refer them back to me? Or perhaps you can let me know people are asking so I can decide how and what to share. 

During a recent meeting, someone observed you seem “off”. They know we work together and ask me if you have a problem. I know you are going through a personal crisis. Is it my news to share or is that really none of their business, a breach of your confidence, unhelpful gossip? While it’s definitely not “my news to share”, whether it’s good or bad gossip depends on a variety of factors including: What did you give me permission to share? Does this person need to know you might not be as available as usual or are they just fishing for a juicy story? Is this someone I can redirect to you?

Bottomline: if it’s about someone else, it’s gossip. The question is, is it good gossip or bad gossip? Reminds me of the Wizard of Oz when Glenda asks Dorothy, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” Glenda did not even consider Dorothy might not be a witch. She was more concerned about whether Dorothy used her powers for good or evil. Lesson? Your intention is the key! The information itself is neutral. It is how you intend to use the information that makes it good or bad. Checking your intention before, during and after you share information that is not yours to share can be very insightful.

Robb Willer, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Polarization and Social Change Laboratory at Stanford University suggests three tips for gossiping responsibly2:

1. Stop and consider what you are sharing, when you are sharing it, with whom you are sharing the information and why you are doing it. Are you preventing something bad from happening? Are you helping someone? If not, think twice. 

2. Avoid using gossip for personal gain. If you are sharing information to cause someone harm or elevate yourself, reconsider.  

3. Convey accurate information. Our natural tendency is to exaggerate and embellish to fill in missing pieces of information and make the stories we tell juicier and more sensational. Be forthcoming. Only share what you know and state what information you don’t know. Keep it reliable. 

By: Elizabeth “Liz” Hill, Associate Director, University of Colorado Boulder

1Cohen, Patricia. “Go Ahead. Gossip May Be Virtuous.” New York Times, August 10, 2002.
2DiGiulio, Sarah. “Psychologists say gossiping is a social skill. Here’s how to know if you’re doing it right.” Better by Today,  September 19, 2019. 

Related links:

Recording of the September 2022 lunch and learn, “The Gossip Train: What is Gossip and Why do we do it?“.
Recording of the November 2022 lunch and learn, “The Gossip Train: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The Gossip Train: What Exactly is Gossip?
The Gossip Train: Why do We Gossip?
The Gossip Train: A Vicious Cycle
The Gossip Train: The Dark Side

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