The Psychology Of Gossip: Why Talking Sh*t Makes You Happy

by Gigi Engle

Language is our main form of socialization. It’s what brings people together and allows us to find common ground. If you can talk to someone with ease, you’re bound to form a successful relationship. Whether the chatter comes over text, Gchat or happy hour drinks, it brings us closer to our peers.

Older generations have long feared the “texting” generation, scoffing at the emergence of Facebook Messenger and online editorials. “The written word is a dying breed! Language is going to the dogs,” they scream. The truth of the matter is, language isn’t dying at all. In fact, this generation is reading and writing more than our predecessors.

Our elders can turn up their noses at our selfies and Instagram quotes, but they can’t say we’re destroying the power of language. Generation-Y values discourse over almost anything else. We’re constantly motivated by our ideas and beliefs to participate in an ongoing conversation with the world.

Often, language takes on a more subtle, socialized meaning, and the merits of gossip are quite undervalued. It's branded "unsavory." To engage in gossip is seen as tawdry and lewd. Yet, we all do it and we all savor it, even if it's over the privacy of a quiet coffee date or a company IM.

As Psychology Today points out, the information we acquire about other people allows us to gain access to intimate details surrounding the people in our social network. It can help facilitate relationships and bring us closer together.

Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has likened our need to communicate verbally to chimpanzees, who use grooming as a means of socialization, saying "gossip-as-grooming hypothesis is one of several theories of language evolution emphasizing the social rather than cognitive aspects of language.” It isn’t so much what we’re saying but the act of speaking to each other that contains meaning.

Gossip serves as a social tool to build relationships rather than only engaging in meaningful, cerebral dialogues. It adds a little spice to otherwise mundane interactions. We were born gossipers; we were bred to talk sh*t. Those who gossip are not necessarily flighty backstabbers, they’re the ones getting ahead in the social network. They're the ones with all of the information.

It’s how we make friends.

The best friendships begin with idle chit-chat. You find a common interest, talk about it and soon develop, a relationship. Talking about mutual friends, coworkers and acquaintances helps you to formulate a solid connection with a person.

Once you’re officially friends with someone, you’re obviously going to talk to him or her about other people. By sharing information, you’re demonstrating a level of trust that your new friend won’t repeat what you’ve relayed.

In a way, it’s almost a test of a person’s character.

It’s how we relate to each other.

Gossiping is the realest form of camaraderie we have. When you have someone at work who'll laugh with you about how ridiculous Daphne’s librarian get-up is today or a friend who'll commiserate with you over Jamie’s horrible boyfriend, you’re going to develop a closer relationship.

We want to engage with people who share common opinions, no matter how snarky. You may not be discussing Voltaire, but you’re definitely having fun.

We want to be accepted by the herd.

Even if you're Miss Independent, you still want to be accepted by the group, and you still desire companionship and relationships. You may not stand out and you might be the leader, but you still value your acceptance and place in your social circle. When we know things about others, it makes us feel included.

Participating in the ongoing conversations your peers have is an element of your favorable reception in the herd.

Having personal information makes us feel kind of powerful.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth once said,

If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.

What is it about talking about others that makes us so self-satisfied? What is it about knowing intimate details of another person’s flaws that adds some meaning to our lives? When we gossip, we gain “social capital” -- a secret weapon of sorts over those around us.

Even if we have no intention of using information in a harmful manner -- even if we have zero desire to taint a person’s reputation -- it’s simply having the information that makes it satisfying.

Having a little dirt on someone can be humanizing.

After you hear about about a celebrity's affair or learn a political figure is involved in some distasteful scandal, doesn't it make these public figures seem slightly more relatable?

Knowing someone is as flawed as you are makes that person likable because he or she becomes vulnerable to the harsh realities of life. Nothing makes a person less intimidating than the acquisition of a personal detail he or she isn't particularly proud of.

It may sound crass, but something about having knowledge about a superior, a coworker, a celebrity or an acquaintance makes each more human. We tend to deify people in positions of power. Once they're brought down to earth, they become accessible.