Gossip is sort of like chicken pox. Levied among a group, it spreads quickly and indiscriminately until everyone within reach is afflicted—but, thankfully, most of it has about a two-week lifespan before it goes away and life returns to normal (though you never really forget how miserable you felt while it was going down). Unlike chicken pox, which usually happens to a person once and never again, gossip is so pervasive that you’re absolutely guaranteed to be on the giving and receiving ends at some point, sometimes several times a week.
There are so many reasons that people gossip. If you tend to only share mean-spirited gossip, maybe it’s because exchanging some nasty words about a person that annoys you can temporarily make you feel better. When you’re already feeling bad, there’s a certain childish joy in making someone feel worse than you. Non-malicious motivations include our species’ overwhelming love of being “first”—that is, feeling like we’ve got the jump on an interesting or funny tidbit about someone’s life (like how the paparazzi compete to publish the first photo of a celebrity baby, even though all babies kind of look the same, which is to say like weird little root vegetables). Gossip can be a bonding experience between new friends who know a third party—after all, you know you’ve got at least one thing in common, which means you might as well talk about that thing (and that thing’s crush, and that thing’s questionable choice of haircuts, et cetera, et cetera).
The anthropologist Robin Dunbar “has suggested that gossip is a vital evolutionary factor in the development of our brains; language came about because of the need to spread gossip, and not the other way round. Gossip allows us to talk about people who aren’t present; it also allows us to teach others how to relate to individuals they have never seen before.” In this way, gossip is important because it functions as a means by which to protect ourselves: lf you hear a dude has been sketchy to girls in the past, or you know from a close friend that someone you know cheats on tests, that could save you from a gnarly situation the next time that person texts you asking to hang out or study.
Unfortunately, most of the time, gossip isn’t done in the name of righting wrongs, as anyone who’s been a victim of it knows. You put your trust in a friend, you got burned, and now everybody knows your secrets. You’ve got to do damage control on your relationship with that person, as well as with the waiting public, whose whispers seem to follow everywhere you go. It’s embarrassing and exhausting and leaves you wondering if you can ever trust anyone again.
And then there’s the sticky situation you find yourself in if you’re the one caught doing the gossiping. You’ve taken someone’s personal information and made it public without their consent, violating your friend’s trust and ostensibly complicating their life even further. You fucked up, dude. And for what? The thrill of being the first to share a cool story? In an attempt to bond with new friends (whom I would seriously reconsider being friends with, if they’re the type that love to gossip)? Regardless, you’re going to have to do a lot of apologizing in the weeks to come—and prepare to not be trusted for a really, really long time.
Gossiping is so universal that engaging in it, though bad, doesn’t brand you forever as A Bad Person. With a little help, anyone can subvert their negative behavior patterns, or rise above all sorts of situations. It’s hard work, but necessary. Even Mother Theresa wrote prayers to help her to deal with the compelling pull of gossip:
These are the few ways we can practice humility:
To speak as little as possible of one’s self.
To mind one’s own business.
Not to want to manage other people’s affairs.
To avoid curiosity.
To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully.
To pass over the mistakes of others.
To accept insults and injuries.
To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked.
To be kind and gentle even under provocation.
Never to stand on one’s dignity.
To choose always the hardest.
Here is our Pokédex—Rookédex?—of gossips, complete with enough identifying information to help you spot each species in the wild. I’ve also listed possible face-saving solutions to help you recover if you suddenly find yourself a victim of loose lips. If you are the gossip, I’ve included recovery plans with advice on curbing your behavior (and many valid reasons you should knock it the hell off).