Life Advice: When Is It Gossip?


The dictionary defines gossip as: “Information about the behavior and personal lives of other people.” Taken literally, that means every time we speak to someone about a third party who is not present, it’s automatically gossip, in which case it’s almost impossible to avoid. More updated definitions include terms like “sensational,” “intimate,” and “not confirmed as being true.” That indicates that gossip means talking about someone else’s private life, including speculation as well as facts, for entertainment value. But I believe there are plenty of occasions that warrant speaking about someone’s personal life with no malicious intentions whatsoever! If you’ve ever felt guilty for gossiping, been accused of gossiping, or been confused about what actually constitutes gossip, here are a few examples of when gossiping is helpful instead of hurtful.

Making plans

Making plans usually involves including other people, and this means taking into account what we know about their thoughts and feelings, likes and dislikes. Since humans tend to be social creatures – some more then others – we don’t just silently plan in our heads. We do it out loud, in front of other people. We like feedback and outside opinions. And going by the sheer popularity of social media, we also now seem to like an audience! When considering involving a friend or acquaintance in a plan, we will most likely share all the particulars with whomever is acting as our sounding board in the hopes that by working together, a plan will go much more smoothly than if we prepared alone.

Learning from example

Society and culture are built on parables and fairy tales, as well as historical examples, which contain moral lessons and warnings to guide our own behavior. And while we do like learning from fiction and history, there is a lot to be gained from the real-life situations that happen to people we actually know.  A situation with which we are familiar can feel more relevant than things that take place far away or happened long ago. As an interactive society, we tend to pass along these real-life stories, which range from sagas  of love and survival to frightening cautionary tales. The intent is not to be malicious or to just repeat someone’s story for entertainment value,  but to give hope or offer guidance so that someone else can learn from their example.

Hopes and worries

We care. It might not always be obvious, but in general people want the best for one another. If we detect unhappiness in someone’s words, behavior, or body language, we often want to address it so that we can help. But talking about it directly with them can be complicated. Maybe they are in denial, maybe they are very private, maybe you don’t know them intimately enough to feel comfortable approaching them. But for many of us, the desperate desire to point it out has been drilled into us since we were kids. See someone getting bullied, tell an adult. See a suspicious bag left at the airport, tell a security guard. But when WE are the adults, when there is no authority figure in a situation, we tell each other. Because there is safely in numbers, and perhaps someone else will know what to do if you don’t. Or maybe they have more knowledge of the situation and will tell you you’re imagining things and you can rest easy because there is actually nothing wrong. A lot of people instinctively work together to solve problems, even if the problem belongs to someone else.

As a society we like to share. We share our opinions, our worries, and our delights with the world. A world made up of other people. If a particular story is funny we’ll tell it to entertain others, and if it’s terrible we’ll tell it to share our concern. But it’s not necessarily intended to hurt others, and in many cases, is intended to help them. And if that’s gossiping, then gossip can be a useful tool. Ultimately, gossip turns out be like most things – neither good or bad on its own, it just depends on how you use it.