Men shoot the shit or talk shit or bullshit. Women gossip. This is a commonly accepted notion of gendered behavior that may actually hurt men more than women. Why? Gossiping is an effective form of unfettered communication used to exchange information, assert dominance, and build trust in relationships. Gossip can be and often is negative, but research shows that men are more likely to lose friends and influence people (the wrong way) when attempting to make risqué jokes. And gossip has a real upside. There’s a reason men who decline to gossip — for moral reasons or reasons related to their conception of masculinity — in social and professional settings tend to be less informed.
“Gossip has gotten a lot of bad publicity. But the definition is merely casual or unmonitored conversation about others,” says psychotherapist Janet Zinn, adding that it doesn’t have to refer to throwing people under the bus, and offering some good news: “Men gossip a lot more than perceived. They tend to gossip in ways that indicate that they can connect with others.”
Still, there are some psychological reasons men may be less eager to engage in gossip than women. Men tend to be more predisposed to physical hierarchies, both biologically and socially, whereas women seek status in more social and relational ways. From a young age, boys tend to roughhouse more and improve their standing through athletic performance and physical prowess, whereas girls share secrets, spread rumors, and generally speak their way to power. Still, the bulk of data on this sort of gendered performance comes from child development research. Few studies have examined how gossip actually plays out among grown men and women.
A recent study addressed this gap in the literature by looking at how 467 people gossiped. Instead of relying on participants to self-report their gossiping habits, they wore portable recorders that randomly recorded about 10 percent of what they said per day. When researchers analyzed the audio, there were over 4,000 instances of gossip categorized as either positive, negative, or neutral. They found that men engaged in just as much negative “tear-down” gossip as women, but women engaged in more neutral gossip related to sharing information.
Zinn and clinical psychologist Tricia Wolanin, who were not involved in the study, suspect that men may engage in more negative tear-down gossip as a shortcut to achieve status as well. If the goal of gossip is simply status, then tearing down others to build themselves up may work in the short term. In the long term, however, it will almost inevitably create problems and earn those prone to this behavior a bad reputation. Better to balance the mean stuff with pure information sharing.
“Men have this inclination to gossip, sometimes as a means to connect with other people,” Wolanin says. When guys talk trash and share secrets, it builds trust, closeness, and can just be a lot of fun. Still, there are healthy ways to pursue healthy social behaviors.
If the goal is strengthening connections — and it should be — men should turn up their neutral gossip game. One way to do this is to gossip about strangers. For instance, discussing a professional athlete’s signing bonus is a solid form of gossip. (There’s a reason that sports guys often seem more comfortable hanging out.) Another way is to gossip about information that’s helpful or beneficial to another party, such as in the workplace when someone is being mistreated. Gossiping about kids and other parents can also be an important outlet for any mom and dad to stay sane. The bottom line is if men are going to dish it out, it’s best to do it in a benign enough way that they shouldn’t worry about being gossiped about in turn. Their partners, after all, are probably talking about them behind their backs.
“Gossip can turn detrimental if we are opting to partake in defaming another, hurting their reputation and those around them,” Wolanin says. “It can be detrimental if we opt to gossip more about others than taking action in our own lives.”
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