Research Shows Negative Gossip Can Build Friendships, Release Tension

Saturday, September 16th 2006, 7:14 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Hate your boss? Can't stand that popular wannabe singer or actress? Think pro athletes are spoiled, coddled and overpaid? You're in luck.

Sharing your negative opinions of those people, and of others who might be a bit closer to home, behind their backs is a strong way of building relationships with others _ stronger even than saying nice things, according to a study led by a former University of Oklahoma psychology professor.

``There are so many negative repercussions of gossip,'' said Jennifer Bosson, the author of the study published in June in the journal Personal Relationships. ``It can hurt peoples' reputation or feelings. It's not like we're saying that people should go around and gossip.

``But if you had to find a positive side to negative gossip, it can really bond people together.''

Bosson, who's now an assistant professor at the University of South Florida, said her study followed up on previous research that showed there was a healthy, bonding aspect to gossip. Bosson and the other researchers _ Amber Johnson of OU and Kate Niederhoffer and William Swann Jr. from the University of Texas _ wanted to learn if that bonding was stronger if negative or positive attitudes were being shared.

Bosson recruited university students for the study, with the group being about 65 percent female. She said the study showed there weren't any gender differences when it came to personal bonds forged by negative gossip.

Bosson said in the published study that ``although shared positive attitudes are indeed important in promoting friendship, there seems to be something especially delicious about the process of sharing our grievances with other people'' and that ``it appears that people's folk theories about friendship formation are amiss.''

The term ``gossip'' conjures up thoughts of people whispering behind their hands and sharing secrets, but ``it doesn't always have to be that way,'' Bosson said. ``Men can do it by making an offhand comment about how they hate the boss, but they're both ways of sharing negative attitudes.''

Bosson distinguishes between positive and negative gossip, which makes sense, said Warren McWilliams, a professor of Bible at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee.

McWilliams, who teaches an ethics course at OBU, said the origin of the word ``gossip'' can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon times to words that meant ``God'' and ``kin'' and that there can be positive uses for gossip, ``if you're sharing information that's not necessarily negative.''

The problem is, he said, that gossip usually quickly turns negative.

``This is just humanity,'' McWilliams said. ``This is just the way we behave. My question is, should we behave that way? It may not be what we want people to do, but it may be, in fact, what we do.''

And, Bosson said, when people in her study shared positive attitudes with their friends, ``those tended to pertain to inanimate objects ... while people tended to share more negative attitudes than positive about other people.''

Why sharing negative gossip forms powerful bonds is an area of research Bosson wants to now pursue.

``One of our hypotheses is that because there are social norms that dictate that it is inappropriate to express negative attitudes about other people, when somebody tells you (something negative) about somebody, as a listener you feel like you know something more genuine about who they are,'' Bosson said. ``That kind of similarity is particularly attractive. It feels more like a genuine relationship. It makes you more well-liked.''