Almost everyone gossips.
And a new study finds that people spend about 52 minutes per day, on average, talking to someone about someone else who is not present.
But here’s the surprise: Despite the assumption that most gossip is trash talk, the study finds that the vast majority of gossip is nonjudgmental chitchat.
“We actually found that the overwhelming majority of gossip was neutral,” says study author Megan Robbins, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, who studies how people’s social interactions are related to their health and well-being. “About three-quarters of the conversation we heard in our sampled conversations was neither positive nor negative,” Robbins says.
Robbins and her colleagues analyzed snippets of conversations from people who had agreed to wear a portable recording device for two to five days. The findings are published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
People love to talk about other people. “We share tons and tons of social information,” says Jeremy Cone, a psychologist at Williams College. He was not involved in the study but says he’s intrigued by the findings, particularly the idea that so much of gossip is rather mundane.
Think about your own conversations with a family member or friend: You talk about everyday things that keep you connected. You share that your daughter got her driver’s license or your uncle has a kidney stone.
“Much of it is just documenting facts, sharing information,” Cone says.
The study has some other interesting findings: Women and men tend to gossip about the same amount. And extroverts are more likely to spend time gossiping than introverts.
And, of course, the study also finds that some gossip is negative or mean-spirited. About 15% of the snippets of gossip that the researchers analyzed included some type of negative judgement.
But even negative gossip can serve a purpose, as more research has found.
“I think gossiping can be a smart thing to do,” says Elena Martinescu, a postdoctoral researcher at King’s College London who has studied gossip in the workplace. “It allows people to keep track of what’s going on and form social alliances with other people,” Martinescu says.
Of course, gossip is a complicated phenomenon. Martinescu points out that at times, it can backfire and sometimes harm people. But some scholars say that from an evolutionary perspective, we’re wired to gossip since it can give us information that we use to protect ourselves.
Research has shown that gossip can help build group cohesion and cooperation.
“When you gossip, you can keep track of who is contributing to the group and who’s being selfish,” Martinescu explains. “And by sharing this information, you can exclude those group members who are social loafers.”
In one of Martinescu’s studies, published this year in Frontiers in Psychology, she and her colleagues surveyed people about their experiences with gossip in the workplace. In the study, participants were asked to “describe a specific situation in which a co-worker said something either positive or negative about their work performance behind their back to another co-worker.”
Then, they were asked about their reactions to these events. Turns out, people felt hurt and angry, but being gossiped about also led them to self-reflection — and in some cases motivated them to improve.
“We found that negative gossip makes people likely to repair the aspects of their behavior that they were criticized for,” Martinescu says.
So, say, for instance, you were criticized for always arriving at work late. Hearing that gossip about yourself may motivate you to want to be on time.
“And that might trigger a change in your behavior for the better,” Martinescu says.
Of course, this isn’t a license to be a loose lips or to repeat baseless claims that can damage someone’s reputation unfairly. But confiding in your friends and colleagues and sharing impressions about another person — even when they’re negative — may be helpful.