We have all heard the old chant our mothers taught us as children, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” For me, this mantra was never much comfort when navigating the catty clicks and insecurities of high school, and anyone who has watched the movie Mean Girls knows what I mean when I refer to "high school gossip"–the kind that is characterized by malicious intent. Now that I'm an adult, I would like to think that those days are far behind me, but are they?
I think of the times I share information with a friend or colleague that may reflect poorly on the person we're talking about. This kind of sharing is not meant to be malicious–typically it's borne of frustration and the need to vent. The question is: has gossiping just taken on a less vengeful disguise? And if we are just venting, is it so bad?
A 2012 TIME.com article entitled, The Upside of Gossip: Social and Psychological Benefits, discusses a recent study suggesting that not all gossip is bad. Author Sora Song interviews social psychologist Robb Willer, co-author of the study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Willer's study found that gossiping had positive social side effects, serving as a kind of social checks-and-balances. Furthermore, gossiping lowered gossipers' stress levels, and those who passed on negative information about others did so because they were concerned about the well-being of others.
Willer’s study seems to describe something closer to venting than the mean spirited "high school gossip". Drawing on Willer's conclusion, I could argue that it's all well and good to vent as long as we have good intentions. But altruistic intentions aside, the reality is that sometimes even venting can do more harm than good.
We all need to get frustrations off our chests; frustrations with friends, family, or co-workers. However, it is important to choose our audience carefully. Perhaps it's a matter of speaking to a more detached third party, someone who is not connected to the subject of our frustration. For instance, it would probably not be appropriate for a mother to vent to her young child about the frustrating personality traits of her father. Doing so might cause the child to think poorly of her father which can be harmful to their relationship. Similarly, when we vent amongst mutual friends, we should think about how this might influence others' opinions, especially if they didn't previously know the particular information.
If we need to speak to someone who is involved, keep it constructive with the aim of improving the situation to help all involved. Un-constructive venting to our friends can easily slip into good old fashioned gossip and can instead be harmful to our friendships. Dr. David C. Watson, author of a recent study entitled Gender Differences in Gossip and Friendship, explains to MSN.com that "Female friendships are more characterized by communion or intimacy," and, as a result, gossip can be more threatening to female relationships than it is to male friendships.
Making the extra effort to consider the feelings of others is difficult, especially when all we want to do is let off some steam. But practicing charity of speech is always worth the effort. If only because, just like gossip, somebody always ends up hearing about it.
Image via flickr user saaam.