English version | You didn't hear it from me, but...

01 Sep 2022
By Sara Andrade

…but apparently we all have an inexplicable attraction to gossip. I mean, not everyone, not me. The others are the ones that like to spread rumors. But I've also heard that they've always been that way. Everything they heard, they spilled it. The more scandalous, the better. I could tell from the very start they were not to be trusted. But please don't tell anyone. I'm not one to gossip, I'm just telling you because it's you. You didn't hear it from me.

…but apparently we all have an inexplicable attraction to gossip. I mean, not everyone, not me. The others are the ones that like to spread rumors. But I've also heard that they've always been that way. Everything they heard, they spilled it. The more scandalous, the better. I could tell from the very start they were not to be trusted. But please don't tell anyone. I'm not one to gossip, I'm just telling you because it's you. You didn't hear it from me.

We've all done it. Gossiping, that is. Or, at least, we perpetuated the rumor. We fed the hear-say. We added layers to the story. Or simply, we talked about those who weren't there. Even if inadvertently, even if inconsequential, innocent, naive, we've all shared information (negative or not) and unconfirmed, about someone absent, with other people - and (probably) we got a kick out of it, or some amount of fun. Don't blame yourself: gossiping or the act of spreading rumors is part of the social fabric and there are reasons why we can't stop doing it. Not all bad. An analysis published in 2019 in the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science found that we “gossip” about 52 minutes a day, which is not to say we spend those 52 minutes dragging someone's name through the mud. “To understand the gossip, we need to understand that, even though we usually think of something negative, we also have to consider the gossip as talking about the other in all its aspects (speaking badly, well or even in a neutral way). This act has several purposes, some being more positive and others negative”, begins by contextualizing the clinical psychologist Joana Canha, who clarifies here a consensual way of understanding the gossip as “talking about someone who is not present”, a safeguard that the 2019 study itself corroborates, stating that most gossip is made up of neutral content (e.g., person x is going to marry this or that, or person y has just been promoted). “As social beings, we are strongly attracted by the connection with the other”, explains Joana Canha. “Sometimes talking about rumors can create a sense of connection to the other (or the group), regardless of whether the conversation is positive or negative. In this sense, sharing experiences strengthens ties with other people and can be a time to think together, aiming at healthy personal growth and the relationship (this does not apply to malicious rumors)", safeguards the clinical psychologist, adding that " when we talk to another person, in a gossip posture (not necessarily malicious) is a way to feel closer to the other person and we can develop feelings of trust in the other, feel decreased anxiety and a feeling of acceptance and understanding. There is the possibility of feeling more 'lighter' for having 'vented', and the intention is to share and not to diminuish the other”.

This means that talking about another person with someone also works to strengthen ties with that someone, by sharing information that generates dialogue and knowledge that becomes common. Some researchers argue that this kind of interaction helped our ancestors to survive, such as evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar who maintains that talking about others and sharing social information makes up most mundane dialogues. Gossip, argues Dunbar's work, Gossip in Evolutionary Perspective (2003), enables humans to spread information in wider social circles, and “if we were not able to engage in discussions of these [social and personal] issues, we would not be able to to sustain the kind of societies we have. The gossip, in this broad sense, plays a number of different roles in maintaining socially functional groups over time". Stacy Torres, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of the article Aging Alone, Gossiping Together: Older Adults' Talk as Social Glue, told Time in 2019 that sharing gossip requires some closeness between two people, because there is an inherent intimacy in the sharing of experiences and in the feeling of corroboration regarding a certain subject. Her research enumerated that gossip can drive away loneliness, and other studies have confirmed that it brings together and strengthens ties while acting as a form of entertainment. Joana Canha corroborates and adds: “despite its negative connotation, talking about others (those who are not present) plays an important role in the social structure. Much of this behavior is done in order to warn others about another person or their behavior. For example, in a situation of betrayal of trust or inappropriate conduct, that person will be spoken by third parties as a warning that he is not to be trusted, so be careful. In this sense, it is also a way of making clear what society accepts or condemns in terms of behavior”, she concludes, assuming here the term gossip in its true and not unfounded aspect. Indeed, many scholars see gossip as a form of learning at certain times, by providing examples of what is socially acceptable and what is not, and its dissemination “serves to keep people in line, morally speaking,” says Megan Robbins, co-author of the aforementioned 2019 study, in an interview to Time, a stance shared by assistant professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, Matthew Feinberg, whose 2012 study showed that when subjects heard about others' unfair behavior, their heart rate increased; when they were given the opportunity to actively participate in the gossip about that person or situation, their heart rate would slow down—the act of gossiping, Feinberg explained, helps calm the body. The study also showed that this sharing can promote cooperation by spreading important information - as long as it is true, of course. Spreading or not correcting rumors that are known to be false has zero social benefits, obviously - done carelessly, it can lead to unfair and unfounded social sanctions, particularly these days, when the social media aspect has come to exponentiate this “justice by the people” and a wider playground to give way to gossip - positive, negative, neutral and/or, unfortunately, fallacious, baseless and petty. “Considering, from the outset, a taste or impulse to spread malicious rumours, it is essential to think about why some people do it that way and others don't”, points out Joana Canha. “We are not born with the impulse to speak ill of others, with malice. There is a well-known phrase from Freud that says that 'when Peter talks about Paul, it says more about Peter than about Paul'. The way we talk about others says a lot about ourselves. Focusing on the malicious part, there are several reasons to speak ill of others: feeling part of the group – being the center of attention in a group is a way of searching for the feeling of appreciation, which can be compared to buying time and attention; the need to feel superior – people with low self-esteem and insecurities try to judge others, putting them down, and in this behavior they find momentary relief from their own feelings of inferiority (…); annoyance – it seems crazy, but in a situation of silence and embarrassment, the rumor can increase the interest of the group; a more sadistic personality – common in people who like to know that others are suffering or going through difficult situations and who, at the same time, are overjoyed that it is not happening to them; and anxiety – in the face of anxious feelings, therefore with less control, talking about others can create a false feeling of control, diverting attention from oneself”. 

"SEVERAL STUDIES SHOW THAT TALKING ABOUT OTHERS, WITHOUT A MALICIOUS PURPOSE, ALSO LEADS TO SOCIAL LEARNING. (...) HOWEVER, MALICIOUS RUMORS DO NOT BRING ANY BENEFIT NOR CONTRIBUTE TO PERSONAL AND RELATIONAL GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT." - Joana Canha

Talking maliciously about those who are not present also shows disrespect for the gossip victim, a feeling that ends up being masked by the attention given by those who listen and feed the conversation, enabling a resulting sense of power. In a way, one of the contours of gossip is that it puts us at an advantage over others, because it means that we have information that the other doesn't have - and that the other wants to know. This attention focused on us, resulting from the curiosity of others who share the same interests, feeds this desire to belong, inherent to a society where self-esteem is unstable and the goal is to be accepted. Feeling that you have secret information about someone carries a dose of pseudo-knowledge, making the gossip author feel at an advantage. This then has consequences at the level of the ego and social position, because it reinforces both one and the other, at the same time it triggers a response from our center of emotions that also justifies this, for lack of a better term, addiction to gossip. “As a general rule”, continues clinical psychologist Joana Canha, “we don't like to spread rumors (thinking about the negative aspect). What reinforces and encourages this behavior is the way it makes us feel. We don’t spread rumors in an empty, emotionless way.” One of the motivations behind talking about someone who is not present, namely if the content is scandalous, is related to an idea of ​​spite or revenge. If the target is someone with whom the interlocutor does not fall in love, as a rule, he will look for someone who shares a similar feeling and the negative analysis of this person occurs almost naturally in the dialogue, in a resentful behavior fed and justified by the mutual disaffection towards that individual, functioning as a kind of validation on both sides for what they are feeling related to the target of the gossip. In The ugly truth: negative gossip about celebrities and positive gossip about self entertain people in different ways (2015), published in the National Library of Medicine, in the Social Neuroscience section, researchers Xiaozhe Peng, You Li, Pengfei Wang, Lei Mo and Qi Chen looked at the brain waves of men and women as they heard both positive and negative gossip about themselves, close friends and celebrities. In both situations - negative and positive - brain imaging showed more activity in the prefrontal cortex, a key zone for our ability to navigate complex social behaviors. The study also showed that the caudate nucleus, the reward center in the brain, was activated in response to negative gossip about celebrities, demonstrating just how lasciviously celebrity scandals appeal to us. At the same time, unsurprisingly, individuals were happier with positive gossip about themselves (predictable and demonstrating how important it is for human beings to fit in socially and be accepted by their peers) and more agitated when this gossip was negative - about themselves, not about others. What happens, then, is that gossip is rewarding, on a biological level, which is one of the reasons we can't seem to stop doing it. I mean, as long as it's not about us. A short but very important caveat for cataloging  gossip: “people created resistance to seeing the gossip as something negative”, Megan Robbins stated in that interview, just as Feinberg noted that there are certain types of gossip to avoid, such as the rumors that are purely malicious and serve no purpose. In this case, “you don't learn anything”, concluded Robbins. "Nobody benefits". Unfortunately, this case 'is rare, but it happens a lot', because of the feeling of power it gives us. “There is a curiosity for the life of the other, mostly by comparing one's own life and when we add issues such as feelings of inferiority, more sadistic parts of the personality or anxiety, an (inadequate) need to deal with these feelings arises”, says Canha. “This answer, unfortunately, comes a lot from talking about the other, devaluing him. However, naturally and innately, around the age of 4/5 there is a fascination with secrecy, with the secret. It is at this age that the concept of right and wrong begins to emerge, and later that of lying. By attending school, the environment provides various behavioral situations to which children develop a critical feeling and talk to each other about the situation. Of course, it's not malicious. In the next stage of development – ​​adolescence – issues of self-esteem, self-confidence, anxiety and the need for belonging and acceptance by peers arise. Many behaviors linked to rumors are expected, these already with malice; naturally, the environment at home can either intensify or decrease this behavior”.

Does this mean that we can avoid this fascination with the root gossip? “Given the role that rumors play in behavior and social bonds, it is not only not possible but not desirable. Several studies show that talking about others, without a malicious purpose, also leads to social learning. For example, if a person has an inappropriate behavior and this is known to their peers, having a criticism or even a consequence (a withdrawal from people, for example) leads to other people not having the same behavior. However, malicious rumors do not bring any benefit or contribute to personal and relational development and growth. They should, ideally, be eliminated and for that it is necessary for each one to take better care of their self-esteem and insecurities, not be in a constant attitude of comparison between themselves and others and, on the other hand, not feed or give importance to these rumours”, summarizes Joana Canha. Socrates (469-399 B.C.), says history and not gossip, had a test for rumors that reached his ears. He says that one day an acquaintance ran up to him excitedly and said: “Socrates, do you know what I just heard about one of your pupils?” “Wait a minute”, retorted the Greek philosopher, “before you tell me you must pass a test of three filters”, which would be the Truth - if the man was sure that the content of the sharing was true; Goodness - if the content was good for the pupil; and Utility - that is, whether the information taken from it would be useful to Socrates. Man failed all three premises. “Well,” concluded Socrates, “if what you want to tell me is neither true nor good nor useful, why should you even say it?” Gossip isn't necessarily bad, as long as it's not malicious - in a word, if you don't have anything nice to say about someone, don't say it. But if it's good and true and useful… why not nurture the social fabric and connections properly? For example, just between you and me, I've always heard that the person reading this text has an irreproachable discernment and feels it was an rewarding to reach the end of this article full of curious - and true - information. And that's how you gossip in the best way possible. And you can quote us on that. 

Translated from the original on the Gossip issue of Vogue Portugal, published september 2022.All credits and stories on the print issue.

Sara Andrade By Sara Andrade

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