May 08, 2010

Why do we gossip?

As yourself why you gossip. If you're stumped, Nancy Baker, in "The Buddhist Guide to Gossip," has a few answers:

So why do we talk about others’ errors and faults? What’s in it for us? Well, probably a number of things. Sometimes there’s the need for reassurance that I’m right. Or that I’m good. Or that I’m at least not like that, whatever “that” may be. It can also be a way of avoiding what I imagine will be a confrontation. It’s an avoidance of telling the truth, of putting truth where it belongs. So in speaking about as opposed to speaking to someone, we’re failing to honor this precept. And that’s often what we do. We’re afraid. Also motivating us is the need to get someone over to our side on an issue. Most striking of all is the unconscious desire for intimacy with the one to whom I am speaking. But this is a delusion, since it is nothing but false intimacy. In fact, it’s amazing to think that we actually use speaking about the faults of others in order to feel connected. Notice the contradiction, the delusion, here: We use, and even create, separation from one thing or person to overcome separation from another! We are afraid of genuine contact, so we find something or someone to complain about or gossip about. It occurs to me that the “expounding upon” the errors and faults of others ... is part of this. It means telling stories about, analyzing, enjoying being very “perceptive” with another at someone else’s expense, as if this shared enterprise brings us closer together.

Next time you're about to complain to someone about someone else, try asking yourself, "What would I say to this person otherwise?" You may find yourself stumped—not a bad place to start. Joseph Goldstein once tried an experiment: What if he refrained from speaking of others altogether? He found that doing this eliminated most speech!

I'll guess plenty will want to try this because if numbers are any indication, wanting to put an end to gossip may be as popular as gossiping itself: "Seven Tips for Giving up Gossip" by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron, posted by web editor Phil Ryan last fall, has been our most popular post to date...

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Bhodi Anjo Daishin's picture

What a fantastic posting. I find when I don't gossip or even engage in conversations others have about people or situations I feel much better and a little more at peace. Thank you so much for the article!

Monica's picture

Isn't 'gossip' just talking about someone who is absent? Does 'gossip' always have a negative connotation? I know it often does, but at a gathering of my family recently we were swapping what is generally considered gossip, but I don't recall much negativity. It's all about when this cousin's baby is due or how that nephew is back on the farm helping out and when that elderly uncle is getting out of the hospital. How do we know what counts as 'gossip' and whether it is unhealthy or healthy?

Annika's picture

Excellent post and article reference. The way people choose to communicate, regardless of spiritual, cultural or religious background, is so key to how we bond. Gossip can be harmless but it often lays out a communication space for negative exchange- be it obvious or implied. The article excerpt is great and definitely offers some tidbits of wisdom as to what people are actually doing when they engage in gossip.

Marley Shelton and Josh Brolin: Unfaithful, or Just Friends?'s picture

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Michelle Marlahan's picture

Thanks for the article - I was very disappointed in the latest issue of another popular magazine that gave gossiping "new cred" as a great bonding technique. (I suppose I should tell them that =)

James Shaheen's picture

The same issue (the current issue) features an article called "Gossip Boy," which argues your point pretty well!

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Cerise LaCore's picture

GREAT topic! GREAT perspective, and something that has been being talked about a LOT in our classes lately. Especially as it relates to the "News" media. However, I'm not so thrilled with the photo you've posted here showing two WOMEN gossiping. There is enough stereotyping being done about women as being gossips when men are just as guilty. In the future, please re-think this, but again thank you for a great article.