No one likes being called a gossip. Socially, the derogatory term is used to describe mean-spirited and shallow conversation regarding a third party, but now scientists are say gossiping isn't as much a sign of a bully as much as it is a social skill that can benefit society.
Frank T. McAndrew, a psychology professor at Knox College, explains in an article for The Conversation, "gossip is a strategy used by individuals to further their own reputations and interests at the expense of others."
And avoiding gossip is a surefire way to segregate one's self from social situations. "Sharing secrets is one way people bond, and sharing gossip with another person is a sign of deep trust: you’re signaling that you believe that the person will not use this sensitive information against you," writes McAndrew.
While gossip can be used in cruel and selfish ways, McAndrew says it is also what keeps us in check. The fear of being a victim of gossip can prevent individuals from slacking off and cheating.
This is especially true in an office environment, where gossiping between colleagues can actually boost morale, due to the pointing out of what is and isn't acceptable in the workplace.
Furthermore, positive gossip serves as a method of self-evaluation. A 2014 study published in the Sage Journals found that hearing gossip about others' achievements and failures helped people evaluate their own success and status, and served as motivation to do better.
Gossiping is also good for your health. Professor Matthew Feinberg of the University of Toronto conducted a study in 2013 in which participants were asked to play trust-based investment games. When a player cheated or did something selfish, Feinberg noted that the other players showed signs of frustration, including elevated heart rates. When the same participants were allowed to gossip and pass notes, Feinberg noted that the participants showed signs of relief and calm.
Of course, if gossiping about people you know still feels wrong, you could try gossiping about celebrities. McAndrew points out that celebrities might actually be the only people we have in common with some neighbours and coworkers. And since celebrities serve as the role models (or cautionary tales) of today, we can still learn from their successes and failures.
Just remember, gossiping is good, but being cruel for no reason is always bad.
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