Is Gossip Bad for Relationships?

Social scientists define gossip as 'sharing about people who aren't there'. So is gossip bad for relationships? Are there different types of gossip? Tara Thomas & Kia Handley discuss the gossip spectrum and how to be better at pro-social behaviours.

[Full transcript below]


You can listen to the show live on Monday mornings from 9:30 am on ABC Newcastle at 1233AM or stream live here.

[Original recording on ABC website here]

Kia Handley is: Not a car! Presenter ABC Newcastle. Loves vintage, Eurovision & great stories.

You can also find the incredibly talented Kia Handley on ABC  Newcastle Mornings here, Twitter @kiahandley  Facebook kiahandleyjourno and on her podcasts: This Retro Life & Let's Talk-  Rural Mental Health, PLUS even more amazing gems here.

Episode Transcript:

Kia Handley:

Would you say you're a gossip ? I don't know... I feel like there are levels of gossiping.

We all do it to a point, but when you spill the tea all the time, it can start having consequences for your relationships romantic or otherwise. So let's talk a little bit about gossiping this morning with Relationship Coach from The Sugar Doctor, Tara Thomas. Good morning.

Tara Thomas:

Good morning, Kia

Kia Handley:

You have had a bit of a perspective change on gossiping.

Tara Thomas:

That's true. When we first talked about doing this topic, I would have come on and very clearly said it's terrible. Never do it. Ruins relationships, but but I've learned some things.

How Do We Define Gossip?

Kia Handley:

Okay. What is gossiping, like... What is it at its heart, at its core?

Tara Thomas:

Yes. Look, I think this is the key to my change of position where originally I would have defined gossip as being, you know, sharing juicy details or rumors, or, you know, private things that you know about someone else.

But what I've discovered is that social scientists who study gossip have a much broader definition, which is that gossip is simply sharing,or speaking about others who aren't there.

So what that means is that that brings in a whole spectrum of different information, not just private juicy details about someone, but also general social information, what someone's been doing, where they've been, what they said, time you've spent with them. Maybe they helped you move house on the weekend. All of that social information, is included now in that term 'gossip'

Kia Handley:

Cause potentially... Like effectively....that is talking about someone behind their back, but not in a malicious way that we use that phrase to mean.

Tara Thomas:

Yeah, exactly right. You're sharing... I mean, you could be sharing a great achievement. Someone's had a promotion, someone's done something lovely for you... So you could be sharing any...

Or just even, you know, oh yeah. I went for coffee with Kia last week, so that's fairly neutral information. So you're sharing social information about someone who's not there.

That end of the spectrum where we're talking about the malicious or, you know, sharing confidences, sharing private information, I'm still staunchly against that Kia.

Kia Handley:

A hundred percent.

Tara Thomas:

No position changed there. Just I've an expanded understanding now of actually the importance of sharing, that kind of information.

Kia Handley:

It is interesting because that's what we do with language. Right. We take a term like gossip and we put a meaning on it that is actually a lot narrower than what that actually is.

Tara Thomas:

You're exactly right. And, and as you said in your intro, you know, looking at reality television and looking at celebrities and gossip, and shows that are built around that specific definition of gossip, that sort of ties into our cultural consciousness. That that's what that means. The drama and the intrigue and the, you know conspiracy even.

Kia Handley:

Yeah. The drama, the drama is the key to reality television and they do it on purpose.

Tara Thomas:

Exactly right.

Two women facing each other in a window seat and talking. They are smiling and gesturing. One is holding a coffee.
Image from Canva

What is Positive Gossip?

Kia Handley:

So why do we do it good or bad?


Some of the positive reasons that we share gossip really come from our evolution as humans.

We're very social creatures and we share with each other, our knowledge we share about resources that other people have, you know: "Hey, Kia's collected a whole bunch of berries this summer. [both laugh] So in winter, you know, we might go and share a cave with her", or, people's behavior and beliefs.

And the result of that is that the sharing of that social data allows us to build our communities and build our networks. So feel like we're part of something bigger and it allows us to, you know, you're referencing other people. So you're bringing them in,  that they're part of your community and allows us to build our understanding of others.

So it can increase our trust and accelerate connection, or it could decrease it.

So for example, I trust you. And then you tell me that you really trust this other person who's in your life. And naturally then my orientation toward that person is that they're more trustworthy than if they were a stranger... and the opposite. You know, if you tell me a story about someone who you work with, or someone who is part of your community, and they've done something that was unhelpful or untrustworthy, then my orientation toward that person would be less likely to trust them.

So, so this is building reputation amongst humans, and it acts as a behavioral management tool, you know, we know that will be spoken about, so we moderate our own behavior. And also we learn about other people and, and that allows us to navigate the world.

I think it's more like a collective understanding of a social communities. It's not just our personal interactions, it's also yours and your friends. And in that way we, we moderate community.

What is the Physiology of Gossip?

Kia Handley:

Like that's a very like emotional side of it. Do we know if this does anything for us physically?

Tara Thomas:

It does. So some, some researchers have had a look at brain imaging, so you can see increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is where our  complex social behaviors process. So we know that gossip is, isn't just a casual thing. It's something that really requires us to engage with it.

And researchers have also studied the different effects on people's heart rates of gossiping. So they found that passive participation, which is more like, you know, someone's just kind of telling you about something working it out, you're spilling the tea, can increase the heart rate. You feel a little bit anxious about hearing that information. I'm not really certain about, you know, where that puts you...

And then the opposite; active participation where you're speaking about it can decrease someone's heart rate and allow the nervous system to relax somewhat. So I guess that kind of ties in then Kia, with the idea that sometimes even sharing that is dramatic is important for our personal health.

You know, that if you need to vent something and get it off your chest and, and making sure that you do that in an appropriate way.

Two women sitting back to back on a suitcase. One is whispering to the other.
Image from Canva

Why Gossip Makes us Feel Important

Kia Handley:

Yeah. And you can see how then that can become addictive, if it makes you feel good, then there's something in that, that, that speaks to that addictive side that we all can have.

Tara Thomas:

Absolutely. It's about the GETTING of significance. You feel important; you know the secrets, you know what's happening, you're in proximity to something exciting and something dramatic, and that really becomes addictive for us too.

So it's quite a nuanced discipline. I think it's a social skill to be able to share information in a way that's pro-social, but that keeps us safe. That keeps everything regulated versus escalating drama.

[Read More About Significance in What Drives human Behaviour? The 6 Core Needs Unpacked]

What is Negative Gossip?

Kia Handley:

All right. So when it's bad, what does that look like

Tara Thomas:

When it's bad?

That looks like sharing confidences, sharing something that's private with someone else. And we all have very different definitions of that.

So I often see people share things about the partners that, you know, in a social situation that I think, "oh, I wonder if they would be okay with that?"

[Also read: Will Keeping a Secret End Your Relationship?]

It also looks like sharing information that's not very... it doesn't reflect well on someone... that maybe you don't need to share.

It's not pro social in that. You're not keeping someone safe. I'm not keeping you safe by saying how Joe Bloggs failed his exam last week, or so-and-so is getting divorced. I'm not keeping us socially safe by sharing that. That's just gossip for the purposes of drama. Yeah.

And, and that really reduces trust because if I hear someone sharing that way, not only do I not trust you because you're sharing my information, but there's this other side of it, where when you, when you're with a friend and they're sharing someone, else's private information as a part of it, that starts you thinking, huh, are you sharing my,

Kia Handley:

What are they saying about me when I'm not there? Yeah.

Tara Thomas:

Yeah. If you're sharing this confidence and I'm pretty sure they don't want you to tell me then what are you, what are you sharing about mine? So it really reduces trust and it begins to erode a relationships and communities.

There is a man working on a laptop. Sitting behind him on a bench are two people who are looking at him and whispering to each other.
Image from Canva

How Can You Stop Gossiping?

Kia Handley:

How can we break this cycle? If we are finding ourselves in a bit of a gossip cycle.

Tara Thomas:

It's hard. Yeah. It's hard. Because especially when you have a relationship with someone where that's kind of a central part of the conversations that you have, you know, that's the way that you relate to each other.

Brené Brown calls that "common enemy intimacy" which I think is really fun. [Edit: I think the NAME is fun! The activitity is terrible!]

Like, we're friends because we hate the same people. So when we come together, we're going to talk about, oh, they did this this time. And they did that that time.

So in order to break that cycle, firstly, you want to become aware that you're doing it and then ask yourself;

  • Why am I sharing this?
  • What is my purpose -  am I building up someone? Am I elevating them? Or am I trying to undermine them?
  • What am I getting out of sharing this?
  • And how's it making me feel?
  • How's it making that person feel and how has it implicating our broader relationship?

So you want to inquire within you why you're doing that and you want to check, you know; "if they heard me speaking about this, would they be comfortable?" because I think we speak about people very differently when they're present to, when they're not.

What to Say When Someone is Gossiping

Kia Handley:

As the passive person, the person who might be getting blurted TO, do we have a role in being like, "Yo, come on now. Why though?"

Tara Thomas:

Yeah, exactly. I love the way you say that!

I mean, you can just be relaxed like that. It doesn't need to be a confrontational explanation of why you don't want to hear it. Just be kind and clear, and say "Hey, I'm a bit uncomfortable about hearing that. You know, maybe they wouldn't like you to share that"... or as you said "Why Though!" or just change the topic!

Kia Handley:

Yeah, let's just talk about something else

Tara Thomas:

You don't even need to engage, you can just change the topic. I personally share with my friends at times, you know, like, "I feel like you share some private things and I don't really feel comfortable about that. Maybe we can talk about different things" but you don't need to go to that level. You can just change the topic and move on.

And then notice when you leave, how do you feel about that person? Do you feel like you trust them more or less? Okay. And that all starts repatterning the way that you speak about people.

What are the Warning Signs for Negative Gossip?

Kia Handley:

And perhaps if we do find ourselves, you know, gossiping, because we can all fall into the habit very quickly. Like it's... no shade, it happens so easily. Humans are complex. Is it a sign that perhaps something else is up that we need to address?

Tara Thomas:

Yeah, I think so.

I think sometimes if you feel like you're saying the same thing over and over again about a particular person. maybe there's a way that you need to address it. Maybe that's a red flag for you.

How do you know there's something happening here that needs to be resolved?

Or sometimes you can't resolve it. There are unresolvable issues. Sometimes there's someone at work and they're all about the drama and it really pushes your buttons and you need to get that off your chest regularly. And that's okay as well. Yeah. Just make sure that when you're doing that, you're not, you know, running through the office, telling everyone everything, every time, maybe just go home and privately say it to a friend, right?

So the, the difference between the positive or the negative or the neutral sharing of information, isn't so much about the content of what you're sharing, but it's about who you share it with. And, and the ways that you're using that information,

Kia Handley:

Let's finish with the wisdom of Carrie, from Muswellbrook, who says, "I tend not to say anything about other people, which I wouldn't want them to know. I had said talking to friends can be useful to find out if one of us is having a tough time and may need extra support. And they don't like to ask for it. But overall, no nastiness enough of that in the world already" says Carrie, from Muswellbrook.

Hear, hear! I agree!

Tara. Great to chat. Thank you. We'll do it again in a fortnight. Tara Thomas, there, Relationship Coach with The Sugar Doctor talking all things gossip.

For full transparency you should know: This transcript has been lightly edited for flow, and to optimise the SEO on my website. That means that I have substituted some words or phrases so that the article is more likely to appear in a google search. In this article "gossip" has been optimised. I only do that in a context where the meaning will remain the same.

This is a decision which I've made because SEO is one of the key factors in determining whether people do, or do not, read my blogs & articles, visit my website, and work with me.