“I can’t believe you are sitting around talking shit about me!”
“What?” I said. “I would never do that. I was sticking up for you. I would never let someone disparage you. Anytime I have heard anyone say something about you, I came to your defense.”
This was one of those “Twilight Zone” moments with a friend. How in the world could they see me this way? Especially when I had proven I had their back over and over again.
But, in one short little sentence, I saw clearly what I had suspected for a long time. They did not consider me a friend, did not trust me and perhaps did not even like me. Wow!! That is all I could muster to think?
But then I thought about it. Perhaps my assumptions were right, or maybe they were wrong?
I had my initial reaction, but after a few days it made sense. My friend had been through a lot. I had witnessed them gossip about others on many occasions. Of course someone who talks about others is going to assume others are talking about them, right?
I had seen this play out in my own family where, aside from my father, there was a love of talking about all the shortcomings of whatever family member was not in the room.
I grew up with this type of gossip. It was normal family stuff and I never thought much of it until I spent a five year period watching how gossip nearly destroyed the relationships of my siblings.
After watching this, plus going through my own personal stuff, I began to have an extreme distaste for gossip and it now makes me viscerally disgusted when I watch others doing it.
“But Jade,” You think. “Isn’t gossip normal?”
To Gossip or Not?
Gossip is indeed normal. Research shows 2/3 of our conversations are about other people who are typically not in the room. The other third centers around weather, politics, sports, TV shows, etc.
We all like to gossip, but none of us likes it done to us. Typical humans right?
I suspected gossip degraded relationships, but I did not want to make assumptions. So in typical fashion I set out to research the subject. Here is what I discovered.
Those who gossip the most are typically the least liked (research here) and least trusted among their friends. These people trust others less too and are often more paranoid.
At the same time, talking about others among friends has had a HUGE role in human evolution and civilization. I found it can also build trust. We tend to share our thoughts about others only with people we feel closest to.
Wait, what? Which is it? Is gossip good or bad?
Surprised? So was I. It can be both. That is why it is such a useful social behavior to understand.
Why we gossip
The theory of gossip has to do with early human social structures. We first evolved in small bands of people.
Our survival was dependent on the group getting along, doing the right thing and working together.
Our major threat to survival back then was being able to find food or keep from being food. Forming groups allowed us to be more successful in both endeavors, but also necessitated we gave up some of our individual needs in favor of the group dynamic.
It appears gossip served a vital role in helping people understand who the leaders were, who was pulling their weight and who was not. This is called the “free rider” theory of gossip. If you like reading actual social psychology research like I do, you can find the study here
Let’s bring this close to home. Let’s say you are stuck in a wilderness setting with 10 other people and have no way to get out. You must rely on each other.
You go on hunts, you collect berries, you build shelters and you talk a lot. A natural consequence is that you will develop a relationship with everyone in your group, but some you will be closer with than others.
There will be a lot of talking going on between individuals, within smaller groups and in the main group. Most of what will be talked about? Who is doing what.
You may notice that on the last hunt Bob stayed in the back and did not participate much. You share this with someone in the group.
They tell you that he also seems to be taking the biggest portions at dinner. You learn from someone else that Bob seems to like to take long naps during the day and does not gather much firewood. And the last time you were attacked by hyenas, Bob was nowhere to be found.
Soon, everyone in the group gets the word that Bob is a “freeloader.” That does not sit well with the group. If all works correctly, Bob should pick up on the fact that he is being looked down upon and his need to fit in will cause him to correct his behavior. If he does not the group leaders will intervene and set him straight.
This is how it works. And this same mechanism is at work in today’s cultures just as much as it was back then.
Good, Authentic Communication (GAC)
While gossip may have been helpful in the past, and can be helpful today, it seems there are really two types. Negative gossip, the type that disparages people (i.e. “talking shit”) and positive gossip, the kind that provides feedback so people can learn and become positive productive members of the group.
So I guess we can think of “talking shit” as gossip 1.0, the less evolved more destructive form. In this form you are not really trying to help anyone. You may be bored, have nothing else to talk about and just like feeling self-righteous or stirring up drama.
We all know people like this. Given we are all human, we have all fallen prey to this behavior and likely engaged in it ourselves at some time or another.
So what about the more evolved form of gossip? What does that look like? I call it GAC (Good Authentic Communication). It is similar in that we are talking about others, but it is different in that the goal is to communicate and help versus being haughty and self-righteous.
It is pretty easy to distinguish between the two. You only need live by one rule. That rule is:
Never say anything behind someone’s back that you would not feel comfortable saying directly to their face.
This one rule immediately helps you distinguish talking shit from good authentic communication. It also will make you more well liked and trusted and probably gives a better chance of behavior change in the other party.
I know this is a hard one to swallow and is way easier said than done. Our own need to be liked often precludes us from giving anyone negative feedback to their face. To get around this we discuss the negative traits of these people with other people. But if we are going to make a commitment to have better, more effective relationships its critical we find a better way..
I am going to teach you exactly how to do this, but before I do I need to give you a brief background into social psychology. The better you understand people’s drives and motivations, the more effective you can be.
Self-verification and self-enhancement
You probably think that people have a natural tendency to want to hear nice things about themselves. Research shows this to be true. It’s called self-enhancement theory.
What you may not know is that people have a stronger drive for self-verification.
We all view ourselves a particular way. What research shows is that we trust others evaluations of us more when they give us feedback that matches our own self-perceptions and that this is more important to us than positive feedback.
Being liked Vs. Being honest
So, yes we like it when people say nice things about us, but if they don’t exactly see ourselves the same way we do we won’t trust that person.
Ultimately this tells us that authenticity and truth is valued over placating and blowing smoke. We humans actually do want honest feedback.
Imagine if we all gave people honest feedback, instead of talking shit behind their back, or blowing smoke.
If they were getting honest feedback constantly, their self-assessment would be more likely to quickly begin to match the assessments of others and they would have the opportunity to change and grow.
Do you want people to just make you feel good, or do you want their honest feelings? When I ask this questions to people in person, the answer is near universal. They want to know the truth of what people actually think of them.
This tells us we can start feeling more comfortable in providing our honest assessments with people. If everyone was doing this all the time, the accuracy of individual assessments would quickly be proven by the feedback from the masses.
It would be like a form of Yelp reviews for personal development. Get negative feedback from a few people and you can dismiss it as opinion, and it might be. Get the same feedback again and again and again, and you have a pretty solid understanding of who you are. That gives you the ability to change if you want to.
Gossip 1.0 keeps the assessments hidden and fosters distrust among everyone. Gossip 2.0 allows the person being talked about to either, 1) get the feedback directly or 2) have the people discussing them do so in a more conscientious and kind manner.
Plus when you engage in good authentic communication, instead of shit-talking, you won’t be viewed as a catty bitch or untrustworthy dick who gossips all the time.
People who love to engage in gossip 1.0 are not trusted. We know that if they are doing it to others, they are doing it to us too.
This may be why research shows we all have 50% less friends than we think we do. Your so called “friends” often don’t consider you a friend in the same way. See the study here
Part of this may be a consequence of gossip 1.0. If someone hears you talk shit about other people you call “friends,” they assume you are doing the same to them.
This is a sad thing if you ask me. Don’t you want to know your friends see you as a friend too?
Talking behind their back
Now to be clear, we are always going to talk about people when they are not around. This is a natural part of being human. It is not about NOT doing this, it is about doing it more maturely.
Here are two rules I use now when talking about someone who is not there:
Rule 1: Say it to their face. I try to never say anything behind a person’s back I would not feel comfortable saying to their face. This is not always easy, but when you come at it from this point of view, your language becomes far more empathetic and less judgmental. You yourself are less self-righteous and more compassionate.
Rule 2: One side of the story. I try to make it clear that I am telling one side of the story only, my side. I often say, “If Bob was here I am sure he may disagree with this and maybe be upset, but that is how I see it.” Or I say, “This is my opinion and the way I see it. I could be wrong.”
These two rules help me steer clear of disparaging my friends, make the friends listening trust me more and keep me in an open, honest and learning state of mind.
One huge bonus? When I do this I like myself better and feel more in my integrity.
Talking to their face
Obviously when I am talking to someone’s face, my language becomes more conciliatory, empathetic and compassionate. I still speak my truth, but my goal is not to hurt someone’s feelings.
That being said, my goal is to express my truth and that may result in hurt feelings. I no longer hold back my opinion just to soothe someone’s feelings. I have learned this serves neither one of us and makes for dishonest relationships over the long run.
Here are some rules I use:
The feedback sandwich
Before I end this blog I would like to mention one popular communication style called the “feedback sandwich.” The feedback sandwich involves sandwiching negative feedback inside of two complementary statements.
For example, let’s say I want to give you some negative feedback. The feedback sandwich says I should say something nice, then provide the negative feedback, and follow up with something nice again. Basically I would say, “I like you, you suck, I like you.”
This is commonly used and recommended in books, blogs and guides on effective leadership and communication. Based on the discussion above, I am not convinced this is a great way to go about things. We humans all suffer from a bit of delusion. Those who need the most feedback often suffer from one of the two most common types of delusion, arrogance or insecurity. The arrogant person is likely to fix on the positives and gloss right over the feedback. The insecure will likely see the positives as a ruse and not trust you meant it. The strategies I outlined above are more authentic and natural and don’t suffer from the shortcomings of the feedback sandwich, in my opinion. Final thoughts Gossip can be a powerful and destructive force in human relations. It fosters distrust among all the parties involved. At the same time, talking about people when they are not around is one of the oldest and most beneficial aspects of group dynamics. It is how we understand group roles, how we provide and get feedback and how we grow as individuals, families and communities. Understanding both the purpose of gossip and its downsides allows us to create some guidelines around our conversations with our friends. Good, authentic communication solves almost all the issues bad gossip suffers from and helps us all grow as a result. I personally loathe shit talkers and love honesty and truth. I am fairly convinced most all humans feel the same way. I am hopeful these types of discussions allow us to see there is a better more mature approach.