Why gossip is helpful
Why do people gossip? More precisely, why do every one of us do it constantly when we all believe it’s wrong and harmful?
Is it just because we’re bad people and can’t help ourselves?
The truth goes so much deeper.
First, understand that gossip is a powerful tool of shame — and for two seemingly opposite reasons.
On the one hand, we use gossip to shame each other into behaving how we want. Since no one wants to be gossiped about, we behave in ways designed to avoid it.
Ironically, on the other hand, we also use shame to stop each other from gossiping.
Gossip, we tell ourselves, is how envious people soothe their insecurities and bring their superiors down to their level.
As author Anna Godbersen wrote,
“Gossip is just a tool to distract people who have nothing better to do from feeling jealous of those few of us still remaining with noble hearts.”
But these common, shame-based explanations hide the real reason why people gossip. And by judging gossip as completely bad — and by extension those who engage in it — we fail to see how we can transform it into something beneficial.
The real reason why people gossip
In his life-changing book, Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg explains,
“Judgments, criticisms, diagnoses, and interpretations of others are all alienated expressions of our needs.”
In other words, when we gossip about other people, it has nothing to do with them and everything to do with our own unmet needs.
We gossip about others when our needs are not being met in our relationship with them.
This is fantastic news! Recognizing that we have unmet needs is a completely different story than the story of shame surrounding gossip. It changes everything.
With this understanding, instead of feeling guilty and ashamed for gossiping ourselves, we can simply explore our unmet needs. And instead of shaming others for gossiping, we can non-judgmentally and compassionately point them to their unmet needs.
This simple understanding completely transforms the nature of gossip. Instead of using it as a harmful tool of shame, we can now leverage it as a powerful and beneficial tool of service to meet our own and each other’s needs.
We know from empirical research that shame doesn’t work, either to meet our own needs or to get others to change their behavior. We use it because we simply don’t know any other way to meet our needs.
Insanity, as we know, is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.
Seeing the unmet needs behind why people gossip is how we get off the insane hamster wheel of shame.
No one is a bad person for gossiping; they simply have unmet needs. What we need to stop gossiping isn’t more shame, but rather more self-awareness.
Speaking of which, let’s take this even deeper: When we have unmet needs, why do we automatically — without even thinking about it — turn them into criticisms of others?
The answer: Because we’re afraid of opening up and sharing our needs; it makes us feel vulnerable. We hide our needs because we think people will take advantage of our vulnerability. We think vulnerability makes us weak.
And so it is that we all walk around with deep, unmet needs, with masks and defense mechanisms protecting those needs, while judging, criticizing, and shaming each other.
We’re all so incredibly tired of this burden.
There’s a simple way to release it: being self-aware of our needs, and vulnerable enough to express them. It’s terrifying to the ego, but oh, so nourishing to the soul.
Gossip is helpful because it shines light on the needs hiding behind our defenses. And by bringing those needs to light, all of us become happier.