We’ve all been told that gossip is bad. Loose lips sink ships, as the World War II poster warned, yet relationship experts estimate that 65% to 80% of our daily conversations are about other people.
In his book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, University of Oxford professor Robin Dunbar suggests that the practice of talking about rumors and personal events in others’ lives is an important instrument of social order and bonding.
“For reasons that are not entirely clear, gossip has acquired a decidedly shady reputation,” Dunbar writes. But the term gossip didn’t originally have that meaning, he explains. It just meant the activity that a person engaged in with people they were close to.
Used as it was intended, gossip can actually have several benefits. Here are five reasons you might want to rethink the practice and use conversations about others for good:
Gossip is often considered a moral issue, but it can be used to solve problems, says Deborah Beroset, a communications expert for the leadership training company Landmark.
“Gossip can serve as an indicator of a lack of workability,” she says. “Paying attention to what’s coming out of your mouth is half the battle.”
When you feel the urge to gossip to a coworker or friend about something that is bothering you, Beroset suggests that you ask yourself, What is the complaint underneath the gossip? For example, are you angry that your boss is giving you more work when you really should be asking for help? Or are you upset that that a friend cancels plans with you when you really want to figure out how to spend more time together? Identify the underlying issue, and take it to the right person, she says.
“What moves mountains in this world is the ability to make powerful requests,” she says. “People are often amazed at the ease with which a simple request can resolve circumstances that previously seemed like a lost cause.”
Using gossip to alert others to potential trouble can lower the chances unprepared people will be victimized. The activity also provides a way to ostracize offenders, according to a recent study at Stanford University published in Psychological Science.
“Groups that allow their members to gossip sustain cooperation and deter selfishness better than those that don’t,” said Matthew Feinberg, postdoctoral researcher and coauthor of the study. “And groups do even better if they can gossip and ostracize untrustworthy members. While both of these behaviors can be misused, our findings suggest that they also serve very important functions for groups and society.”
Another benefit of gossip is that it relieves anxiety. In an experiment, researchers from University of California, Berkeley found that participants who witnessed someone behaving badly experienced stress and an increase in heart rate. Warning others about what they saw, however, lessened the effect.
“Spreading information about the person whom they had seen behave badly tended to make people feel better, quieting the frustration that drove their gossip,” said social psychologist Robb Willer, coauthor of the a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
All gossip doesn’t have to be negative. Researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands studied the effect of positive and negative gossip, and found that hearing good stories about others provided motivation for self-improvement. Negative gossip was also helpful, as it provided information on what not to do to risk your reputation.
Receiving gossip about other people is a valuable source of knowledge about ourselves, because we implicitly compare ourselves with the people we hear gossip about, said Elena Martinescu, lead author of the study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Gossip can also be a key factor in developing trust and cooperation, says Derek Arnold, communication instructor at Villanova University.
“Sharing ‘private’ information can establish relationships between people so that they will continue to confide in each other,” he says. “They are more likely to work together on other activities.”
In the University of California, Berkeley study, researchers also concluded that when people learn about the behavior of others through gossip, they use this information to align with those deemed cooperative.