Kelly must be anorexic otherwise how could she be that thin!" whispers Sue, who uses the same gym. "Kelly married Bob just for his money," sneers Bob's ex-girlfriend. "No wonder Kelly got promoted, look at how she flirts with the boss!" says a colleague passed over for the same promotion.
Oh, the delicious thrill of gossip! Being on the ‘inside' is akin to a members-only club: exclusive, private and exhilarating, with members bonded by the delight of knowing ‘who's dating who, who's up for a promotion and who's getting fat.'
OK, we know it's frivolous and, to some, it's as much of a social taboo as telling someone ‘your bottom looks big in that'. But, despite being dismissed for decades by researchers as blather with no useful function, a new survey reveals that gossiping is actually good for you. The original social networking tool, gossip can boost positive emotions, reduce stress, and play an important part in defining acceptable social behaviours.
This isn't just good news for busy-bodies either: it's a positive find for 85 per cent of women because, according to the Harvard University study led by psychologist Dr Colin Gill, that's how many of us indulge in, and love, gossip.
So, how exactly does trivial chit-chat benefit us? Apparently it all comes down to the bonding process. Gossip builds social bonds, because shared dislikes create a stronger sense of alliance than shared positives. Dr Leila Edwards, managing director of Transformations Institute says, "The act of gossiping - in the sense of sharing stories, and sometimes secrets and confidences - with others, can help form friendships and establish supportive peer groups."
And, according to Dr Gill, this process boosts the ‘happy chemicals' in our brains.
"When we gossip, we're taking an interest in what other people have to say and vice versa, and bonding with them makes us feel happier, releasing positive hormones like serotonin and reducing stress and anxiety," says Dr Gill.
A 2009 University of Michigan study further backs this up, concluding that a gossip session can put you in a good mood, as feeling emotionally close to a friend increases levels of the hormone progesterone, which promotes wellbeing and reduces anxiety. "Many of the hormones involved in bonding and helping behaviour lead to reductions in stress and anxiety," says Professor Stephanie Brown, who led the research.
And in boosting our mood, gossip may act as a natural alternative to Prozac. Yes, really! Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director of Lighthouse Arabia, cites studies that show the mutual grooming performed by primates stimulates the production of endorphins - the body's natural painkilling opiates - which relax, reduce the heart rate and lower stress. Likewise in humans, mutual sharing - divulging information about a dreaded mother-in-law to a close girlfriend, for example - can soothe worries, making the problem seem minor, if only momentarily.
Dr Afridi explains how people can become depressed when they don't feel they belong to a social group, and suggests that gossip can offer a sense of connection with the larger society, resulting in lower rates of depression. "Sharing such information can make people feel close to each other because they feel that someone cares about them enough to warn them against harm."
Furthermore, comparing ourselves favourably with the people we're talking about (known as ‘peer-referencing'), which happens when we gossip, further boosts the ‘happy chemicals'. Take the ex-best friend who lost her husband to his secretary or the sister-in-law dumped by her boyfriend for the fifth time… we often gossip about others and secretly pray it doesn't happen to us. Experiments have shown that this raising of social status, which results from finding ourselves in a better position, increases serotonin.
So, whether the gossip involves putting someone else down so you feel better by comparison, or is simply a way of sharing insecurities, the end result is a healthy relief of social and professional anxiety.
And, believe it or not, a good chinwag can also get you higher up the career ladder. So much so that Donna Eder, co-author of the paper Strategies of Adult Gossip, recommends gossip in the workplace: "The professional female needs to learn [the skill of gossip] and use it to her advantage to create camaraderie." Frequent workplace gossiping can teach you a lot more than whether Laura in Accounts is pregnant or just getting fat. A recent study at The State University of New York revealed that gossip plays an important part in defining acceptable social behaviours and acts as a deterrent to stepping outside of cultural bounds.
This can be useful when it comes to office politics, as office worker Angela, 31, relates. "Listening to gossip in my new office taught me what was and wasn't acceptable. In my old office, we had coffee breaks whenever we wanted, but here it's not acceptable to get coffee until there's a designated break."
Gossip in the office gives us a snapshot of the unwritten rules, social norms and expectations of our colleagues through the ‘office grapevine', which can benefit those who pay careful attention. "It's a good way of finding out what kind of behaviour is socially acceptable in your group. If somebody raises their eyebrows as they tell you something about somebody else, you modify your behaviour accordingly," explains Dr Gill.
Scientists say that exchanging juicy information about others is a quick way to distinguish friends from foe and can protect us from harm - helping us gather useful information about people and warning us away from liars and cheats.
But before you worry that you have to be cruel to others to be kind to yourself, the type of ‘good-for-you' gossip is not the malicious type, which Dr Edwards describes as "disrupting social relationships rather than bonding them." She warns against nasty gossip and advises, "Stick to what you actually know and be careful to base critical comments or judgements on facts."
So, next time you're gossiping by the water cooler, don't feel guilty, simply let the chemicals wash through your brain and remember it's not just healthy, it's essential, as Dr Gill explains: "99 per cent of what people communicate is about other people. It's one of the key things that makes us successful as a species. Without it we'd die." Enough said.
How to keep gossip 'good'
- If the gossip you are hearing is critical and negative and the person gossiping enjoys it, question their motive in telling you.
- Before you pass on gossip, ask yourself, ‘Is it true? Can it do harm to that person?'
- If you'd feel upset to know such things were being said about you, then it's best to step out of that particular circle of gossip.