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Science Says It’s OK To Gossip. Really!

Why our wagging tongues can be a good thing.

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illustration of ladies gossiping at a cafe
Anjelica Roselyn
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For the last 10 years, I have laced up my running shoes on Saturday mornings and met a group of girlfriends at a local coffee shop parking lot. After we complain about how many miles we’ll have to run to combat the wine we drank the night before, we set off on a slow-paced run. We talk about our work weeks and the kids who continue to drive us crazy … and we gossip. In fact, catching up on gossip is probably my favorite part of our runs. Well, that and the hot coffee afterward.

We gossip about the moms who make our lives difficult in the PTA, and we complain about the neighbors with the dogs that poop in our yards. Over the miles, we talk about the annoyances in our lives and commiserate with each other over stories about friends who have been handed terrible diagnoses or about the coworker who just can’t seem to fit in at work.

Before you judge me for admitting that my girlfriends and I gossip, you can stop right there, because I know you do it, too. In fact, a new study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science finds that people spend about 52 minutes per day, on average, talking to someone about someone else who is not present.

That’s right, ladies: We’re spending almost an hour of our days discussing someone who is not there to hear what we have to say.

Does that mean we are horrible people?

Nope. And there’s science to prove that our wagging tongues are actually not harmful to our social relationships.

Stay with me because I’m about to get to the best part: The study also found that the majority of the content in our discussions, or gossip sessions if you will, is relatively neutral.

In fact, study author Megan Robbins, who researches how people's social interactions are related to their health and well-being, found that 85 percent of what we say about other people behind their backs is neutral. The study centered around subjects who agreed to wear portable listening devices for two to five days. The researchers analyzed snippets of conversation and were able to prove that most of what we say about other people is more about relaying facts than hurtful words.

Think about the last time you picked up the phone to call your best friend with some juicy tidbits. Did you pick up the phone and say, “OMG, that fat pig Jennifer is such a terrible person”? Or did you say, “OMG, did you hear that Jennifer changed the way they will set up the school carnival next year, and I think it’s going to be a complete and utter disaster”? It’s probably the latter, right? When you are chatting with your bestie about the PTA, more often than not, you are discussing the facts rather than slinging mud.

We simply love to talk about people and how their actions affect our lives — and science agrees with us. And, we gossip with our girlfriends as a way to work out our feelings about uncomfortable situations so that we know where our common ground lies in our relationships. Gossip is about forging a relationship with those around you and solidifying who your tried and true friends are long term.

But, let’s not forget about that 15 percent of gossip that is actually hurtful, because let’s face it: We’ve all been there, too. I haven’t always been an angel when it comes to gossip, and I’ve been the recipient of some nasty rumors over the years. No one likes to be ridiculed behind their back, but, as researchers point out, negative gossip can serve a purpose, too.

Because, like the old adage says, “Truth hurts” — and sometimes it takes hearing the truth to make you change your attitude or habits. Negative gossip can motivate you to get to the bus stop on time for your kids when you find out the other moms are whispering about your inability to be punctual. Or, finding out that your coworkers think your cubicle smells to high heaven will make you rethink your choice of an egg salad sandwich.

This is not to say we can all go to hell with ourselves and let the gossip flow. Rather, this study lets us off the hook for discussing the actions of those around us as much as we do with one another. One of my friends in college used to say that we weren’t gossiping, but rather “merely discussing topics that are relevant to us.” I like to think this study also proves that my college roommates and I were ahead of our time 20 years ago.

So, just as Olympia Dukakis says in Steel Magnolias: Ladies, if you can’t say anything nice about anybody, come sit by me. Because science says we are about to have a really good chat.