“Gosh, I wonder what Emilia was thinking the other day when she wore that red polka dot top with the pink striped pants… It must be that boyfriend she has started hanging out with – and did you see that her eyes matched her pants too? Ha-ha…. I think that she must have been up all night… – that new boyfriend and her might be doing a bit too much partying – No wonder she lost her job…”
You find yourself in a small group and one person starts by talking about somebody who is not present. Soon the next person chips in and then you find yourself adding your comments. Then conclusions are being drawn about what this person does, why he/she looks the way they do, and act different, etc.
Be honest here… It feels good, right?
You and the group gossiping are in effect engaging in a ritual that serves to confirm each other. You add a layer of confidentiality and trust to your little group. By doing it you signal that your values are shared and therefore they are valid and good. You belong to the group. You feel accepted and safe right then and there.
This is an ancient pattern we humans historically have used to survive. Edward O. Wilson, a pre-eminent biologist and professor at Harvard, finds in his recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth, that the human drive for belonging to a group is fundamental to the success of the human race. Wilson finds that we humans naturally seek out the pleasant consequences of what he calls eusociality. Through our evolution we have learned that we thrive when we belong to a definable tribe that defends itself against outsiders.
Wilson’s theories add to and complement Darwin’s theories of individual selection – and define the human race as intensely social as well as driven to succeed personally.
Gossip serves a purpose to confirm each other in our sense of belonging to a group – and the ones who are outside of our group as foreign and odd – not safe for us to engage with.
Ultimately this is the same drive that allows us to go to war for a cause and sacrifice our life for the perceived common good. It helps explain why soldiers wear a uniform and march in step; the identical appearance helps support the notion that they are part of a shared and greater cause than their own.
So no wonder that the urge to gossip feels so compelling! We feel a sense of reward when we confirm each other in how we “get it” – and others just don’t!
Still many of us feel guilty after we have engaged in gossip. The quick thrill of it wears off after we get back to our desk or get back home. We feel like we betrayed our Inner Wisdom by doing it. We beat ourselves up about it – and promise ourselves we won’t do it next time. And many of us still find the urge irresistible and do it again and again!
I do believe it is important to understand what we are up against when we combat the urge to tittle-tattle at the water cooler! It is an urge wired deep into our brains for the survival of our kind!
Here is a strategy that I use and recommend to my clients when they find themselves in a tempting opportunity to gossip:
First simply acknowledge that now you are partaking in an ancient ritual that is hard-wired into your brain. It is designed to give you a feeling of safety of sense of belonging. (This understanding often by itself leads to an internal chuckle and a fondness of our need, as a species, for each other.)
Decide whether your engaging in gossip will ultimately benefit you and the group. If not:
Find a way to feel you belong to the group by not excluding or back-stabbing others (you can lead the conversation to a place of shared experience that doesn’t involve putting anyone down.)
By making the choice that is really going to give you most long-term satisfaction you avoid the mental “hangover” later! And you start establishing a new aware pattern of behavior. You help others find more meaningful ways of enjoying togetherness.
Ultimately, our survival as a species might depend more on our ability to find common ground with each other than by engaging in tribal warfare on any level!