“There are eight-hundred kids in this school, how can we not talk about each other?”
I remember sitting at the lunch table during my Sophomore year, entranced by latest news about the relationship of a senior I had never even spoken to. I’ve heard of rumored hookups in the bathroom and of students getting themselves into dangerous situations with college kids, and while I acknowledge the absurdity of these stories, but I’d be lying if I said they weren’t entertaining. Oh gossip, how we hate to love you.
When you think of gossip, you likely think of the rumors you’ve heard on your way to class, in the cafeteria, or passing through the halls. You might even have heard a story similar to the one’s I just described. Despite its bad reputation, not all aspects of gossip are necessarily negative. From a sociological and evolutionary standpoint, gossip can even be a beneficial tool in forming social habits. Unfortunately though, in the adolescent years, gossip seems to serve one detrimental purpose: to bring others down. Whether you acknowledge the vice or deny all rumors that come your way, gossip affects us all: it’s just a matter of whether you’re a good gossip or a bad gossip. So which are you?
“Fundamentally, gossip exists because we are social creatures who need to live with each other to survive. Research psychologists typically define gossip as the sharing of evaluative information about absent third parties,” shares Michelle Leichtman, a professor of psychology at UNH.
The rooted dilemma that seems to affect not only Oyster River, but all high schools and most teenagers is that we (myself included) just can’t seem to pull ourselves away from the toxifying “bad gossip.” We live in an era where everyone is vying for their 15 seconds of fame, and when sharing the secret you promised you wouldn’t grants that, it’s easy forget our better judgement. Gossip feels good.
Whether you’re getting an update or “spilling the tea,” unproductive gossip adds a new layer of stress and anxiety to everyday life when not only do you have to worry about the things happening in front of you, but what’s going on behind your back.
TEA (noun): juicy or sought-after gossip; can be spilled or sipped
(originating from drag culture as a play on “T” standing for “truth”)
Within small circles, sharing a juicy secret brings people closer together. Chloe Jackson (‘20) agrees that, “if you’re talking about a topic that you can connect on, then your friendship becomes stronger, but you’re also degrading the people you’re talking about.” What better way to bond than over a coveted piece of information? Within my own friend groups, I notice this rooted anxiety within myself to hear what’s going on. Maybe it’s so I can feel connected by a piece of information, or maybe it’s so I make sure it’s not about me.
You may be compelled to “spill the tea” because it feels expected within your social circle. In larger settings like an entire school of 800 students, rumors are often entertainingly passed around because there’s no immediate consequence. “People just don’t have anything better to do. It’s easy, and most people can connect with it. There’s always going to be something to talk about. There’s always going to be someone who’s doing something different or something crazy that happened over the weekend,” says Kelsey Wiles (‘19).
After the high school years, gossip doesn’t deteriorate; it just matures. Brian Zottoli, a humanities teacher at Oyster River High School, explains that, “Teenagers can be really mean, and they can be really critical, and they have a way of preying on weakness. Adults are just as petty; they’re just more refined in how they gossip. They don’t target the low hanging fruit.” In the adult world, gossip in the workspace can come across as slander and is seen as highly unprofessional.
Dr. Ryan Long, the psychologist at ORHS, connects the dots in this sense. “School is interesting for students, because it’s a professional environment for you, but it’s also your social environment. It’s both your friend groups and your workspace.” This is why gossip can seem heightened in high school, and when Oyster River is often referred to as “Oyster Rumor,” it makes sense why. Wiles adds, “There are eight-hundred kids in this school, how can we not talk about each other?”
Beside the obvious risk of hurting someone’s feelings, gossip can be unhealthy in the way of creating faces for people you don’t even know. Say a new student enters your grade. They seem normal and even friendly from the few conversations you’ve shared with them in your math class. But one day during lunch, you hear that they transferred schools because they got in a fist fight with a classmate and suddenly, the idea of pursuing a friendship doesn’t sound so appealing. “I feel like I know a lot about a person through gossip without having met them or talked to them before,” says Lily Doody (‘20).
If we are taught that the act of gossiping and spreading rumors is typically mean-spirited, why do we continue to participate in it? “It’s ingrained. If you can throw someone under the bus which elevates you, then you’re in a better social standing and someone else is not. We have ways of targeting certain individuals to feel better about ourselves,” says Zottoli.
Insecurity is one of the greatest promoters of gossip and in high school. Sharing a piece of gossip is a quick-fix, a band aid to lift oneself up by bringing another down, which is why it’s often easy to risk someone else’s feelings for your own. The tongue is a sword and rumors like, “can you believe she cheated on her boyfriend?” tend to have no real productivity other than making the speaker feel better than someone else by bringing them down.
The gossip being shared doesn’t even necessarily need to be something that makes the speaker feel superior in comparison. I know that when I share a particularly good piece of gossip, there is an instant gratification from the positive reactions of my listeners. It’s nice being at the front of the whisper process.
While gossip is somewhat petty and often frowned upon, not all gossip is created equal, and there are some arguments towards its favor. “Something important to distinguish is that every time you talk about someone doesn’t necessarily mean it’s gossip. It’s different when you’re trying to work out an issue with a friend or you’re venting,” suggests Wiles.
There are circumstances where gossiping can be beneficial and even healthy. For one, gossip can strengthen and solidify relationships as it allows us to create and maintain social bonds with small to large groups of people.
Gossip can also create unspoken social cues and laws that can be examined from an evolutionary perspective. “Human beings need to make reputational judgments to determine which creatures (outside those with whom they have kinship relationships) to interact with and which to stay away from… One way humans can streamline the process of sharing reputational judgments is to talk about other people, and you can see why people receiving this information would pay attention to it; in some contexts, it could enhance survival,” says Leichtman.
The theory of “prosocial gossip” allows humans to learn from the consequences of particular social behaviors in order to make informed decisions about their own choices. A 2016 study conducted by Jan Engelmann published by the British Journal of Developmental Psychology determined that, “already at preschool age, children spontaneously gossip and offer helpful reputational information.” In this case, gossip is an instinctive process and even somewhat benefits our society.
In the best scenarios, gossip is simply a primitive social ritual that helped our early ancestors survive and allows us today to determine right from wrong. The prevailing issue is that, “she slept with him, what a slut,” is entirely different from hearing about the negative behaviors about a friend’s partner and using the information to teach ourselves how to be a better, more caring partner ourselves. Simply put, the juvenile gossip in high school teaches us how not to be talked about rather than how to be better people. “Can you be your true self if you’re constantly just trying to be someone different so you’re not gossiped about?” Zottoli asks.
In a time period all about growth and the development of who we are as young adults, will we ever be able to fully come to fruition if we’re so preoccupied as to how we come off in other people’s rumors as long as “bad gossip” abounds? And while I don’t have any advice on how to break the habit, isn’t the first step on the road to recovery identifying the problem? If we truly feel the need to gossip, we can at least start by asking ourselves whether it’s “good gossip” or do good gossip.
And that’s the tea, sis.
Written by Grace Castonguay
Artwork by Madison Hoppler