2am on a Saturday. I was sitting with few school friends over a cup of coffee, sharing stories and opinions about our other classmates, when the realization dawned on me that I was participating in something I have always tried to stay away from – “gossip”. Hoping to steer our conversation in a more productive direction, I decided to ask my friends why it is that humans, of all ages and genders, gossip. 

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a gossip is a person who habitually reveals personal or sensational facts about others.

Everyone likes a great story. As a matter of fact, story telling is humanity’s oldest form of record keeping. Think about the Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Growing up, every Indian parent uses these epics to teach their children about the dichotomy of good and evil. In fact, story telling one of the easiest ways for us to pass on information, share ideas and impart learnings.

It was on these lines that one of my friends, Nathan, an unyielding optimist, stated that in his opinion ‘gossip’ was positive and could even be constructive. For me this was a surprising change of perspective, as I had grown accustomed to attaching a negative connotation to the word. Yet I could not deny the logic in Nathan’s argument. What he said was that when two people gossip, they often share stories regarding a third individual whom they both known. This, he argued, can instinctively create a sense of trust between the two ‘gossips’. He further argued that a sense of trust was fundamental to every human beings’ survival. “Trust implies safety, he said, “and we all need to be safe in order to survive. This is keeping in mind of course that survival is the most basic instinct of all living beings”.

So Nathan argued social bonding and forming a sense of trust as a reason for gossip. This would imply that gossip can be harmless. I felt like rather than gaining clarity I had more questions in my mind. Would you trust someone if you knew that they might gossip about you in the future? or if you learned that they had already gossiped about? Is the intention behind all gossip, to create a sense of trust and bonding? Or can gossip be a product of more destructive motives?

Gossip can also be defined as casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details which are not confirmed as true.

My other friend, Rachel, a self-proclaimed realist, felt that gossip is more destructive than constructive. She claimed that human beings are nothing more than social animals, and that is why they gossip. “If you look at nature’s example, all animals that live in herds or packs look have a leader they follow”, she said. “All leaders is to have power. In human society one of the many ways to boast power is to possess knowledge or information that no one else knows.” Rachel argued that it is for this momentary sense of power that people enjoy a good gossip. “Through our gossip, we like to put people down and in doing so we create a false sense of superiority for ourselves”, said Rachel, “We like this sense of superiority. That’s why we gossip”. 

I could see where she was coming from. Gossip often can be used to criticize or create an inferior perception about someone. In fact, judgements about a person are often formed on the gossip one hears, regardless of whether one has met the person or has verified the gossip to be true.

It was at this moment that Josh, who had been sipping his coffee in silence till now, joined our discussion. “I can appreciate the logic behind both perspectives, but honestly I think that people gossip because of a more internal and subconscious motive”, Josh said. Josh went on to argue that the reason we, as a species, are so prone to gossip, is because we all enjoy attention and crave a sense of validation from our peers. “Everyone wants to feel accepted and often even appreciated by those around them”, Josh explained. “It is because of this sense of insecurity, that people gossip. When you claim to know something, which is not known to a lot of people you automatically become the centre of attention. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it to put someone down or build them up. Nor does it matter if you’re gossiping to create a bond with someone. If you gossip, then regardless of your intention, it’s clear that on some level you enjoy the attention. If we want to curb our desire to gossip, then we have to work internally, on our sense of self belief, and learn to accept ourselves for who we are.”

What started out as a catch-up over coffee ended up as night catering to a lot of food for thought. Personally I have not yet been able to decide whether gossip is productive or destructive. The heated debate between Nathan and Rachel made me think that perhaps it’s how you use it that makes it one or the other. 

Yet Joshua’s point about dealing with one’s own insecurities definitely hit home. I don’t know if insecurities are the reason for gossip, but I do think that if we want to continue to grow as individuals, then accepting that we have insecurities and working towards overcoming them is an unavoidable step in the process. 

What Josh said could be summarized as “It should not matter what others think. It is what you think of yourself that is the most important.”

I definitely agree with that. Don’t you?