It is estimated that at least 60% of adult conversations are about a person who is not present, and often in a malicious manner.
Even though we know we are not doing the right thing, on numerous occasions, we can’t seem to avoid gossip. We feel attracted by the life and adventures of others, moved to give opinions and discuss their mistakes and weaknesses, often giving rise to the circulation of false information, not contrasted or that should not be aired.
Although we tend not to consider it an important phenomenon, it is not a trivial issue, since gossip can affect a person’s reputation, violate his or her privacy, deceive, break relationships, create enmity, etc.
Let’s start with something basic: Where is the border between talking and gossiping?
Talking is a way of expressing our thoughts, feelings, experiences and ideas to the people around us.
However, is it wrong (or bad) to talk about other people? It depends. Not always. Let’s look at the difference below.
There is nothing wrong, for example, in telling your friends: “I love to hang out with my friend so-and-so (Maria, to name a random name) because she is witty and I enjoy the things she says”. And why isn’t that bad? Because those words don’t hurt anyone.
The problem arises when you say things with bad intentions, when you tell things about other people that you are not sure are true, or you reveal intimate information that you know (or think) should be kept secret, because then you are gossiping.
Let’s imagine that you saw a person (whom you know) doing something that caught your attention and you wondered if there was something wrong with him or her. There is absolutely nothing wrong in asking such questions, but what if you start telling others (people in your circle) that you think that person has (or may have) problems of any kind or you start to negatively evaluate the way they act or face their responsibilities without knowing the reality, making a mistake. Without going any further, imagine that what you say is false, that you are completely wrong.
Before you know it, everyone (or many people) will start talking about so-and-so having problems and imagining what kind of problems she has (which will be false, moreover).
Unfortunately, this is how rumors work. Without going into particularities, and generalizing, if you say things that you would not say in front of the person, you are gossiping or (to be more exact in the case I have just given as an example) spreading gossip.
Has psychology studied these issues?
Yes. Rumors and gossip are phenomena that have been studied by social psychology for decades, and there have been many researchers who have analyzed how they are born, how they spread and what effects they have.
What are the differences between rumors and gossip?
A rumor is a general statement that is presented as true without the existence (or availability) of concrete data to verify it. In fact, the most peculiar thing about a rumor is the ease with which it circulates without any evidence to support it.
When a bad intention is linked to a rumor, we talk about gossip. A gossip usually intends to confront, or predispose, a confrontation against someone. And sometimes it is simply something negative that is gossiped about someone.
Some examples to make it easier to understand:
- “How bad the pants look on so-and-so.”
- “Look at the way Menganita looks”.
- “Menganita is a bad mother because she doesn’t take care of her son”.
- “Surely so-and-so has relationship problems because of this or that”.
As a curious fact, gossip, many times, ends up becoming news (you only have to review some news of the magazines of the heart, for example), once they are corroborated.
Are there gender differences in gossip or gossip?
Different studies have been carried out in relation to all this and with different results.
For example, a study by Dr. Jeffrey Parker found that preadolescents gossip an average of 18 times every hour, with up to 50% of the time spent on gossip, in which they are three times more likely to gossip about people of their own sex than about people of the opposite sex.
According to this study, gender differences reflect that girls talk more about everyone, including talking about popular boys (or those they like) while boys are more sparing with each other.
In general, and in relation to the cases that come to the consultation (at least in my case), it is much more common to see girls, adolescents and adults who feel distressed and affected by problems of this type. And although less frequently, I receive children (or adult males) who report problems derived from this type of behavior in relationships with people of the same sex.
Are women, then, more gossipy?
Generally yes, and the problems derived from all this are encountered daily in consultations. Nevertheless, the following advice (which I think will sound loud and clear) is valid for both men and women:
If you want the minors watching you (whether they are your children or not) not to be gossipy, set a good example and be careful when you open your mouth.
Does the age variable have an influence?
The age variable has also been studied. In a study with 384 preadolescents, gossip was identified as comments that occur without the presence of the person referred to and were considered inappropriate. However, skepticism about credibility was higher in younger than in older people, suggesting that the criterion of doubting content decreases with age.
Thus, the older the age, the greater the credibility of the gossip.
This study suggests, therefore, that preadolescents seem to have a greater understanding of the credibility limitations of gossip than older people.
Are people in towns, or villages, more gossipy than in cities?
No. The environment in which you live does not predispose you to criticize. That depends on the person himself.
Do people think they are gossipy?
No. They don’t usually have that perception and generally don’t recognize it. It’s very curious. Nor do they often realize that they unwittingly (by gossiping) reveal a lot about themselves. Let’s address a couple of things:
1. One day it will be your turn to be the victim.
2. By extension they are alerting you that they are not worthy of your trust, so you should not confide in them.
“Yeah, but that person likes me,” someone will say.
Yes, and maybe even that person likes you, but if one day they feel the need to talk, keep in mind that they may gossip, invent or spread true or false information about you.
Returning to rumors, on what factors does rumor depend?
Much research has been done on this topic. Allport and Postman, for example, proposed a mathematical proportionality to define rumor:
(Rumor) is proportional to (Importance) x (Ambiguity).
And in this regard they wrote:
“Translated into words, the formula means that the amount of circulating rumor will vary with the importance of the matter to the individuals concerned, multiplied by the ambiguity of the evidence or testimony touching that matter.
The relationship between importance and ambiguity (they added) is not additive but multiplicative, since with importance or ambiguity equal to zero, there is no rumor.”
A lot of ambiguity but no importance: what to raise the price of newspaper in Oslo for Spaniards.
Much importance but no ambiguity: the amount of an inheritance that a family will receive, known to all family members.
Apart from the latter, what is important is that they established that the subject of the rumor must have a certain importance, both for those who transmit it and for those who hear it. In addition, the rumored facts must be somewhat ambiguous, i.e., susceptible to various interpretations.
Now, a piece of news can be very important and at the same time very ambiguous, but nevertheless the rumor does not spread, so (strictly speaking) the basic law of rumor is not fulfilled.
Why? Because there are conditions that inhibit the circulation of rumors. Among them, the one I like the most is one that was discovered thanks to studies carried out with psychology students.
Allport reported that some students, realizing that they were in the presence of a rumor, worried about not incurring in an unscientific way of proceeding, did not become accomplices in its circulation.
Therefore, and according to Allport, the scientific study of rumors and their dissemination helps to form people forewarned against such attitudes.
In the same way, I would like to think that this information that I am transmitting will help us to think twice when someone tells us a gossip and not to transmit it.
Is anything known about the causes that give rise to it?
Any human need can impart movement to a rumor. Often hatred or envy, for example, are behind false accusations or slander.
Allport and Postman, of whom we have just spoken, pointed out that a great deal of rumor-mongering arises from something as uncomplicated as the desire for interesting conversation and the enjoyment of piquant or unusual gossip. Sometimes, this I say, people really do talk for the sake of talking, by which I mean they gossip for the sake of not being quiet when it comes to making up gossip.
Moreover, we know (and this is proven) that a person is more inclined to remember and spread a rumor if it serves to relieve, justify and explain his own emotional tensions.
People who dislike certain types of people, for example, will remember and repeat rumors that are harmful to those groups. Not only that, but it has been proven that whether rumors are distorted or not, and even the possibility of their being transmitted, also seems to depend on the level of anxiety of those who hear them.
The greater the anxiety, the greater the possibility of spreading the rumor. On the other hand, this I add, the less people have to do the more they gossip, and spread rumors, this being inversely proportional to the occupations one has.
The busier the person is, the less time he or she spends on such activities. Also, (and this has been proven) we can say that rumors only advance through like-minded people, since in an environment that is too heterogeneous, with few commonalities and diverse interests, they will tend to disappear.
Which rumors are most likely to spread?
A good rumor (by good I mean transmissible) must have several characteristics, of which I consider important the fact that:
- It should not be too long or complex.
- It must be easy to emit and retain.
- It must be adapted to topics of interest.
And this is important because, as rumors are passed from mouth to mouth, they lose words and details, becoming shorter.
In particular, experiments have shown that about 70% of the details are eliminated over the course of 5 or 6 word-of-mouth transmissions.
What can we do when someone tries to gossip with us?
First of all, ask ourselves why and for what purpose they are telling us this. Sometimes it will be possible to ask the person himself. Other times, on the other hand, it is not convenient. Be that as it may, we have already seen that the gossiper portrays himself.
But what is really important (and the point I want to get to today) is the consideration that we should not pass on gossip, gossip or rumors to anyone (even if we did not invent them) because as the saying goes: for a gossiping mouth you need a gossiping ear.
I believe that no one should say “behind the back”, clandestinely, anything that they cannot say in the presence of the person they are referring to. Do you want to know something? You want to criticize? Criticize or argue (that’s not a bad thing) but always up front. The thing is that the gossip usually does not dare when he is in front of his victim.
If it would hurt the person to hear it, better not say it. Think what you want (that his pants look bad, for example), but don’t say it unless it’s strictly necessary. It’s as easy as that.
Is there any case in which gossip has something positive?
Yesterday I was reading that gossip has a bad press, but it also has something positive. When sharing information about people’s reputations becomes prosocial behavior, as when one person warns another of the dangers of dealing with a particular friend, colleague, or acquaintance whose personality is complicated or toxic.
And as long as the information is pure, not biased with malicious intent. Finally, in closing, I’ll give you a couple of tips:
- The first is the maxim of someone I love and appreciate, who has a very practical view of life and often says: “Surround yourself with people who make you happy. The people who make you laugh, who help you when you need it. The people who really care. They are the ones worth having in your life. Everyone else, they’re just passing through.”
- The second, (this is homegrown) try to make those people good people and try, in that, to be like them.