10 Psychological Reasons People Gossip Behind Your Back

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Whether you bring up what's going on in other people's lives while catching up with an old friend, or are browsing tabloid headlines in the morning, we all tend to gossip.

In fact, a 2019 study published in the Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science found that people spend about 52 minutes per day gossiping. And while it may seem like a normal part of staying in the "know," there are psychological reasons we tend to speak behind the backs of other people.

Why do people gossip?

People gossip to bond with their peers, to entertain themselves, to exchange information, and to vent emotions.

While you may have a stereotypical idea of what gossip is (such as a teenage girl who talks about her friends behind their backs), the truth is that we're all guilty of gossiping.

And though the word "gossip" carries a negative connotation, that same 2019 study found that gossip is usually mostly neutral and about social information as opposed to someone else's physical looks or personal achievements.

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That said, it's still interesting to understand the reasons why people gossip, so here are a few reasons why people talk behind your back.

1. People crave a sense of intimacy.

Someone who talks about other people might be convinced that gossiping is a form of intimacy. And in some ways, it is. Frank T. McAndrew, Ph.D., Cornelia H. Dudley Professor of Psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, told NBC News that "gossiping is a social skill."

However, building a relationship on negative gossip isn’t a good idea. If all you do is gossip about people, it can make it difficult for your friends to fully trust you.

2. People are insecure.

If someone can't stop criticizing their peers, it's a good sign that they are also hyper-critical of themselves. The kinder you are to yourself, the kinder you will be to others. It goes both ways.

People who don't feel the need to gossip about others are sure of themselves or they've found a healthier way to cope with their frustrations about others.

3. People need reassurance.

People need reassurance to invoke the concept of trust, something that allows people to be open and authentic. People need reassurance because it helps alleviate doubts and insecurities, providing a sense of validation and comfort in uncertain situations.

Reassurance fosters a sense of trust and stability, boosting confidence and allowing individuals to navigate challenges with a greater sense of peace and resilience.

There is a difference between positive gossip and negative gossip. Telling your friend about a serial cheater to prevent them from dating them is different from gossiping to one of your roommates about the other.

Be smart and selective about who you decide you're comfortable sharing information with and focus on sharing helpful information instead of negative information. It's okay to complain and vent about your life, but you never know who might spread your secrets.

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4. People are lonely and bored with their lives.

Sometimes, people don't feel secure in their relationships or friendships. They've forgotten how to behave like a normal adult around others.

Or perhaps, they are so bored with their lives that they have to invent a reason to be upset.

5. People are trying to spread information.

Let's say you've just started a new position at a company where a lot of your co-workers have been working for a long time. If a co-worker gives information about how the boss reacts negatively to tardiness, it could be helpful information to learn.

This is called pro-social gossip, which is a good thing because it's ultimately used to help and promote cooperation between others.

6. People are afraid to work on themselves.

Instead of questioning their own actions, people rely on gossip as a form of self-validation.

Susan Kulakowski, MS/MBA explains that "We validate our own opinions when the other gossiper agrees." However, she warns, "There's nothing to be learned about ourselves or others when we gossip. Gossip is a means of reinforcing the opinion, 'I’m right. We’re right. No need to open our minds to new ideas or experiences.'"

7. It’s a survival instinct.

Gossiping is in our genes to do as a survival instinct. Gossiping can serve as a survival instinct by helping individuals gather information about potential threats and allies within their social group.

Sharing information about others' behaviors and experiences allows individuals to assess the reliability and trustworthiness of those around them, aiding in making informed decisions.

Gossiping can also reinforce social bonds and strengthen group cohesion by establishing common knowledge and shared values. Furthermore, by participating in gossip, individuals can establish their own reputation, enhance their social standing, and gain protection from potential threats within their community.

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8. People struggle with identity.

Gossiping can be driven by identity struggles as it allows individuals to compare themselves to others and gain a sense of superiority or validation. By engaging in gossip, individuals may seek to distance themselves from traits or behaviors they find undesirable in others, reaffirming their own identity and values.

Gossip can also serve as a means of shaping and reinforcing group norms, allowing individuals to align themselves with certain social identities or reject others. Gossiping about others' identities and choices can provide a temporary distraction from one's own insecurities and internal conflicts.

9. People are jealous.

Jealousy often fuels gossip as it provides an avenue to express resentment or frustration towards those we perceive as having what we desire. By gossiping about individuals who evoke jealousy, we can attempt to tarnish their reputations and level the playing field in our minds.

Gossiping about others' achievements or possessions may also serve as a coping mechanism to alleviate feelings of inadequacy or inferiority. Engaging in gossip about those we envy can provide a sense of temporary satisfaction or superiority, offering a way to confront our own jealousy indirectly.

10. People want to fit in.

Gossiping often emerges from the fight to fit in, as it allows individuals to establish or reinforce social connections within a group.

By engaging in gossip, individuals can signal their willingness to conform to group norms and demonstrate their knowledge of shared information. Gossiping about others can also serve as a bonding mechanism, creating a sense of camaraderie and belonging among those who participate.

It can be used strategically as a means to gain social status or leverage within a social group, positioning oneself as an insider or influencer.

What To Do If Someone Is Talking Behind Your Back

If someone is talking behind your back and you find out, the first thing you should do is take a pause and process that information. Try to focus on the positive aspects of the situation and shift your perspective.

Second, if gossiping makes you uncomfortable, try your best to avoid participating in or listening to it. However, if you discover that you are the target of hurtful gossip, consider addressing the person directly and assertively expressing your feelings without blaming or accusing them.

In some cases, it may be best to ignore the gossip and not give it unnecessary attention, as rumors often fade over time. Remind yourself that the actions of others do not define your worth or character, and focus on building resilience in the face of gossip. Because you are above nasty rumors.

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Izzy Casey is a freelance writer and copy editor who received her MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her work has been published in Corriere della Sera, The Iowa Review, Bennington Review, Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, BOATT, NY Tyrant, and elsewhere.