Girl Talk

What if I am the subject of some harmful gossip?

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In 2011, my then-roommate, Oma and I will stay up late, every night, watching different episodes of the series, gossip girls.

We will be glued to the television as soon as we got back from work and many times have skipped dinner because we were so engrossed in the series.

The series ‘’Gossip Girl’’ follows the lives of privileged teenagers on the upper east side of New York who could hide no secret from a ruthless blogger who is always watching.  The blogger reveals secrets about teens in the upper east side of New York.  There were roller-coaster romances and piles of family secrets, and series by series, the main casts tried to outdo each other by spilling their secrets.

I was particularly intrigued as I could relate with the whole drama conveyed by the series. While it was fun watching it as a form of entertainment, it can be very devastating and emotionally draining when you are the subject of some harmful gossip in real life.

Is Gossip Always Bad?

All humans partake in some form of Gossip, despite the age-old adage, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Whether it’s workplace chatter, the sharing of family news or group texts between friends, it’s inevitable that everyone who talks, well, talks about other people. In fact, a 1993 observational study found that male participants spent 55% of conversation time, and female participants spent 67% conversation time on “the discussion of socially relevant topics.”

David Ludden, a professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnet College, opines that ‘’ Gossip can be positive or neutral.”

In a 2019 meta-analysis published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, people spent 52 minutes a day on average gossiping about 467 subjects, three-quarters of that Gossip was neutral, “not salacious and negative” at all. So, while it is true that people can spend a significant amount of time talking about their peers, oftentimes that chatter is benign.

Why do people gossip?

Researchers argue that our forefathers survived on Gossip.  Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar who first pioneered this idea compared Gossip to the grooming that primates engage in as a means of bonding. Instead of picking fleas and dirt off one another to bond, Ludden explains, we now talk, which is “where gossip comes in because chit-chat is mostly talking about other people and conveying social information.”

Gossiping gives humans the ability to spread valuable information to very large social networks. “Were we not able to engage in discussions of these social and personal issues, we would not be able to sustain the kinds of societies that we do,” she explained in a 2003 paper published in the Review of General Psychology.

“We are much more social than our forefathers” “so sometimes it can be very helpful to get information about people when this network is too big to observe by ourselves.”

Some scholars have also argued that a Gossip is a form of cultural learning, offering teachable moments and providing people examples of what’s socially acceptable — and what’s not.

For example, if there’s a thief in a community and people start to talk about that person in a negative way, the collective criticism can serve as a warning to others about the consequences of stealing. In other words, Gossip can serve to keep people in check.

Matthew Feinberg, who is an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, opines that there are some types of Gossip that should be avoided, such as Gossip that is purely harmful and serves no greater purpose, like mean comments about someone’s looks or false information spread with an intent to defame another person’s character.  

Try as much as we can, most of us have been the subject of this negative, damaging kind of Gossip, which can be emotionally draining and have been known to be a cause of depression for many teenagers.

17-year-old Rita said, ‘’once I went to a party, and the next day rumours were spread that I had had sex with one of the boys there. That wasn’t true at all!” I would feel everyone at school was looking at me, and some time will just lock myself in my room and cry my heart out.

A young lady named Aisha also added that ‘’ Sometimes I’ll hear a rumour that I’m dating someone—someone whom, in fact, I don’t even know! And people will just believe without having the facts. This hurt me so bad.

While there has been an established social case for some kind of positive Gossip, the harmful type described by Rita and Aisha above can cause a lot of damage to the subjects.

What then can young people do if they realize they have been a subject of some untrue, harmful gossip or rumour?

Our subsequent article on this segment will discuss that.

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