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Dubai: ‘Once a gossip, always a gossip,’ is a phrase you often hear about a person who is known to spread anything from news, facts, or rumours about others.

While gossiping has been labelled as a bad habit and is morally questionable, are all kinds of gossip actually harmful in a society?

Dr Ottilia Brown, Clinical Psychologist at Lighthouse Arabia in Dubai, said that anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists report that it is a natural part of being human and have even highlighted the origins and functions of gossip.

“A few thousand years ago, our ancestors used gossip as a social tool to garner support against outgroups and to leverage status within the group,” said Dr Brown.

Back then, he explained, gossip provided valuable information that facilitated survival and thriving and was used as a tool to bond with others or to isolate those who were not cooperating in the group.

“This social skill has been passed down through generations and is still being used as a social tool. In essence, humans have been wired to gossip and where there are groups there is likely to be gossip,” said Dr Brown.

Some experts make the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ gossip. Does this hold merit?

Dr Brown said that some distinguish between the two by using the criteria of intention and consequence. Questions such as, “Is there malice intended by sharing this information?” “What are the potential negative consequences for the person that I am sharing the information about?” can help categorising a type of gossip.

Good gossip

“Generally, good gossip typically serves the interests of the group and not those of the individual doing the gossiping,” said Dr Brown.

He explained that gossip can also orientate newcomers in the group to the rules and norms of the group. It can also be used as a tool for reminding group members of group values and as a means of punishing those that are not adhering to group norms.

Gossiping can also facilitate bonding, especially on an individual front.

This can occur if the information is shared with someone who you trust will not use it against you at another time.

‘Good’ gossip can also be used to warn someone of the potentially harmful behaviours of others, said Dr Brown.

“Some would argue that gossip about others’ negative attitudes and behaviours may motivate the listener to regulate their own similar behaviours and helps them act in a more socially appropriate manner should they recognise some of the gossip patterns within themselves,” added Dr Brown.

The majority of people tend to gossip with friends, family and people they trust and like, which indicates closeness.

Some examples of good gossip can include talking about how well a colleague or family member did on a project or exam, warning a friend if there is concerning behaviour directed towards them, or a mother warning a child about potential danger when she knows that a peer engages in inappropriate behaviours, said Dr Brown.

Bad gossip

On the other hand, some people find themselves gossiping to serve their one interest at the expense of others. This can be defined as ‘bad’ gossip.

“Gossip can be used to capitalise on others’ misfortunes and to use these against them during a time of vulnerability in order to advance the self’s interest,” explained Dr Brown.

Gossip is also a useful ‘political tool’ in organisations/institutions or social structures where people are competing for status or are attempting to remove someone out of a social group.

This widespread bad habit can also be used as a bullying tactic where rumours are spread in organisations, families or more widely, on social media.

“Some people engaging in bad gossip derive pleasure from shaming and slandering others and telling humiliating stories or using others’ misfortune for comic relief or to elevate the self,” said Dr Brown.

Unfortunately, most gossip takes this critical form.

Examples of ‘bad’ gossip include spreading malicious rumours or adding to the truth in a negative way that can benefit the individual doing the gossiping.

Never too late to stop gossiping

However, the good news, is that bad gossiping, like any other negative behaviour, can be unlearned.

To begin with, awareness can be created through social media platforms and informative articles on the topic.

“If people do not respond to negative gossip and actively disengage from it by saying things like, “I do not feel comfortable with the direction this conversation is taking”, or walking away from gossip and not spreading the rumour, the gossip will stop with them,” said Dr Brown.

He advises people to stop engaging in bad gossip, and to either be silent or speak up against it.

For many gossipers, the harmful effects of ‘bad’ gossip is not always apparent to them.

The person being gossiped about can be harmed emotionally and socially if the outcome of the gossip is to spread negative private information that could harm their reputation and affect their social standing or worse result in the loss of something.

Dr Brown pointed out the outcomes of bad gossip for the gossiper are overwhelmingly negative. “People may be eager to listen to the gossip but are not likely to trust the individual. The gossiper becomes known as someone that breaks promises and that does not have integrity with regard to safeguarding private information,” he added.

Such people are often immature, enjoy exaggerating often to elevate themselves in some way, and may come across as envious of others.

“Their loyalty may be questionable, and they have deep-seated feelings of insecurity thus needing to focus on the misfortune of others in order to feel better about themselves,” added Dr Brown.

Parents can teach children about the dangers of gossiping, especially with regard to bad gossiping.

1. Lead by example. Children do what parents do and not what they say.

2. Explain how harmful gossip works. Help them to understand that rumours and gossip typically distort the truth and that what is being passed around may have changed considerably from the original message.

3. Teach the valuable skill of empathy. When children are engaging in harmful gossip highlight the similarities to hurtful teasing.

4. Teach children to respect others’ privacy. Even if they are gossiping about something that is truthful, it can still be harmful if it is a sensitive topic.

5. Teach children how to develop healthy friendships

6. Teach children to stop the spread of the rumours and to know to report something to a person in authority if the person who is being gossiped about could be hurt by the rumours.