Why do we gossip? Maybe you’ve asked yourself that whenever you’ve overheard someone else gossiping at the office break room, in locker rooms, in group texts/chats, at family gatherings, at your hairdresser, waiting in line at the store…the list goes on! The bottom line is, almost everyone seems to be doing it and you’re probably no exception either. But why do we even gossip in the first place? And why does it seem so enjoyable sometimes? What do we get out of it and what is there to gain?
In the simplest definition of the term, to gossip means to talk about someone who isn’t there. And while it’s generally frowned upon and discouraged by a lot of people — from our teachers, to our peers, to our supervisors — not all gossip is malicious in its intent. While it’s certainly true that sometimes people gossip to spread false rumors or put down others, there are actually a lot of other different reasons why we might talk about someone behind their back. Curious? Here are 8 of the most likely reasons why we gossip:
1. To Break the Ice
Have you ever met someone new and the only thing you had in common was a mutual acquaintance? Because making friends with strangers requires us to break the ice by trying to find some common ground, it’s no surprise that many of us would probably try to make small talk with them by gossiping about the people we both know. Do you run in the same social circles? Follow the same people? Or share a dislike of the same person? Talking about all of these things can help you better get to know and bond with someone you just met.
2. To Stay in the Loop
This is a common reason why people gossip in small towns and tight-knit communities. Because everyone pretty much grows up knowing everyone else, gossiping about other people can help us all stay in the loop with some people we may have fallen out of touch with. This is especially true if the person you’re talking about behind their back tends to be more private and keeps to themselves. You may feel like you have no other way of knowing what’s going on in their lives than by asking around and gossiping about them.
3. To Fit In
Another likely reason why we may find ourselves gossiping from time to time is to fit in better with our peers. If you find yourself surrounded by people who love to chit chat and gossip all the time, then chances are you’re going to go along with it, too. Because the truth is, gossiping with other people can bring us closer and make us feel like we belong in the group. And so many of us are afraid of being seen as a “killjoy” or a “goody two-shoes” that we let our desire for social acceptance outweigh our desire to do the right thing.
4. To Feel Better About Ourselves
Now we move on to all the negative reasons why we tend to gossip, and number one on that list is to make ourselves feel better by dragging other people down. In psychology, this is known as “downward social comparisons,” a defensive tendency to boost our self-esteem by comparing ourselves with people who are worse off than us (Smith, 2000). And though we don’t like to admit it, gossiping is a guilty pleasure because of how satisfying and comforting it can be to judge and talk as badly and as openly about the people we dislike.
5. To Regain Power
Next is envy, another common motivator for people to gossip. When we come across someone we perceive to be better than us in some way — maybe they’re more attractive, or more popular, or more accomplished — we all have a natural inclination to tear them down. Sometimes we gossip about them behind their backs or spread rumors about them because we wrongly believe it will allow us to regain power and put the spotlight back on us. We hate all the attention they’re getting so we gossip to make ourselves feel superior to those we feel jealous of.
6. To Have A Distraction
Something you may be surprised to learn is that a lot of people actually gossip out of nothing but boredom. And when we can’t find anything interesting enough to talk about, many of us tend to gravitate towards gossiping and talking about other people’s lives instead. After all, gossiping is an easy but entertaining way to rouse all of our interest, especially if it’s about something juicy. There’s a lot of drama and excitement that can come from gossiping with our friends, and to people who don’t have much going on in their lives at the moment, it’s certainly a fun distraction to help us pass the time.
7. To Feel Closer to Others
Another surprising reason why we gossip? So we can feel closer to those around us. For those of us who crave intimacy and connection but don’t quite know how to communicate it in a healthy and honest way, it’s easy to turn to gossiping instead. When we gossip about the people we care about and talk about them behind their back, we can ask all the things we’ve been curious about but too embarrassed to say (like, “Is Person A really dating Person B?” or “What happened between Person A and Person B that made them hate each other so much?”).
8. To Hold People Accountable
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, we also gossip as a way to hold other people accountable. Because many of us don’t like resolving our conflicts with confrontation, when someone does something to upset us, we tend to let out our feelings by gossiping about them instead and telling everyone else all the things we want to say to them. We air out our grievances to other people and gossip about what the offending party did to us because we’re too timid to say it to their face.
So, do you relate to any of the things we’ve mentioned on this list? Have you ever gossiped because of one of these reasons? While it isn’t always bad to talk about people behind their back, understanding the reasons why we gossip can help us better deal with the problems we are facing in a healthier, more positive, and more constructive way. Whether it’s a need to belong, a desire for attention, or simply a fun little distraction, it’s important that we don’t hurt others, jeopardize our relationships, or ruin our reputation just for a little bit of gossip.
- Smith, R. H. (2000). Assimilative and contrastive emotional reactions to upward and downward social comparisons. In Handbook of social comparison (pp. 173-200). Springer, Boston, MA.