No Shade—Here’s Why Gossiping Is Actually a Good Thing

written by EMMA GINSBERG
Source: Cora Pursely / Dupe
Source: Cora Pursely / Dupe

After moving to a new city, I realized I didn’t have anyone or anything to gossip about. Leaving my college campus for a new place was a long-anticipated opportunity to escape the gossip web. I didn’t feel pressure to gab about other people nor worry about what others were saying about me. Imagine my shock when I discovered that my lack of gossip was actually a sign of an unhealthy social ecosystem. Before this, the idea of gossiping seemed so inherently negative to me that I had no reason to question my own aversion to yapping about other people.

It wasn’t until I started listening to Kelsey McKinney’s Normal Gossip podcast that I realized my aversion to gossip was totally unfounded. Each week, McKinney brings on a new guest and recounts an anonymously submitted tale of real-life gossip. The tales range from workplace drama to the interpersonal complexities of niche communities. Hearing these stories made me realize that I needed some “normal gossip” of my own. I was glad to be out of the shit-talking on campus, but I still wanted to have conversations that could build community.

After having this revelation, I decided to interrogate why I thought gossiping was such a problem in the first place. I chatted with McKinney to determine why gossiping was, much to my surprise, something I actually needed. If you’ve ever been ashamed of your status as a certified yapper, here’s why gossiping might not be so bad.

Gossiping can help create social norms

The first episode of Normal Gossip that convinced me that I needed some friends to gab about? That would be episode 1 of season 4, entitled “Every Peach Is a Miracle with Samin Nosrat”. It tells the story of three roommates who work at a local farmer’s market and have become subject to a feud between the vendor they work for and another vendor.

The story is full of moral twists and turns that would make even the most ethically inclined mind spin. Like, what do you, as an employee, do when your boss is acting out in a way that might deter customers? What do you, as a friend, do when you’re caught in the middle of two other friends’ disagreements? Is it really such a bad thing to squeeze a peach at a farmer’s market before buying it? Though this tale is one of gossip—that is, it’s a story from a friend-of-a-friend that is unverifiable—it’s McKinney’s guest’s response to each moral challenge that provides real value. Together, McKinney and Nosrat determine that squeezing a peach at a farmer’s market is actually pretty bad.

When we talk about others with people we trust, we generate a moral code.

According to McKinney, this moralizing that occurs around morsels of gossip can be helpful for community building. While it might feel icky to talk to a friend about the unverifiable actions of an absent third party, gabbing about those stories brings the two of you closer together. It allows you to gauge right, wrong, and morally grey. When we talk about others with people we trust, we generate a moral code, building social norms and fostering connection.

Gossip can serve as a warning or reminder

Another standout episode of Normal Gossip is entitled “Dishing in the Confessional with Emma Eun-joo Choi,” and in it, McKinney tells the story of a very long, very strange, very codependent relationship. The “protagonist” of the morsel of gossip is a young woman who spends several years tied at the hip to her high school sweetheart. As McKinney walks Choi through the story, the actions of the “protagonist” elicit many reactions from Choi along the lines of “Noooo girl, what are you doing?!” as she continues to pursue a relationship with a guy who, although not necessarily a bad person, is clearly wrong for her.

Many of us have long abided by the doctrine of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” However, recounting stories like the one in this episode of Normal Gossip can be a positive in our real-world relationships precisely because they cause us to cringe at the actions of others. Listening to McKinney and Choi gab about the actions of the “protagonist” provides a reminder to us as we tune in: Maybe don’t shape your entire life around what your partner wants, and try to figure out what you want instead. Hearing cringey stories about other people allows us to become more compassionate towards their shortcomings. It also gives us that gut-check warning to hopefully never make the same mistake ourselves.

Gossip can make us feel more empowered

I’m not the only one out there who has changed their life to attempt to avoid the act of gossiping. According to McKinney, it’s common for guests on her show to express at least a little bit of discomfort with the idea of gossip before they dive into the anonymous stories. In response to being asked how they feel about gossip, McKinney says a normal response is, “‘Well, I love it, but I feel bad about it.’”

There are examples of this across all seasons of Normal Gossip, but one conversation that sticks out is in episode 1 of season 3, which features author and comedian Samantha Irby. “I love low-stakes gossip, but I’m a little bit of a freak in that when someone tells me a story, I immediately start thinking, ‘Are they ok? Is that person ok? Did that turn out ok?’” Irby shares on the podcast, referencing the stress that any piece of secondhand info can induce. Irby explains why she feels it is better to be a receiver rather than a spreader of gossip. She’s not the only guest who has a complicated relationship with talking about others—most episodes reveal the guest’s complex individual moral code surrounding the subject.

There’s a whole long, complicated history of why gossiping is commonly associated with women, but historical nitty-gritty aside, consider this: When you think of a “gossip,” is the person you picture usually a man or a woman? Even the TikTok viral word “yapping” has a somewhat feminized connotation, associated with people who are “shrill” (insert eye roll). According to McKinney, this isn’t a coincidence. “Society demonizes gossip at large to protect power and also to relegate what women are saying as something that is unimportant,” McKinney said.

If we’ve learned anything useful from modern wellness culture, it’s that all-or-nothing mindsets are rarely productive. Thinking of something like a “guilty pleasure” is usually an indication that we have an unhealthy relationship with that thing—and the same goes for our feelings about gossip. Gossiping in a balanced way can actually be an empowering way to shift our black-and-white thinking about the subject.

Gossip can be downright entertaining

My favorite episode of Normal Gossip is, by far, episode 3 of season 5, with comedian Matt Bellasai. In this episode, McKinney tells the story of a queer kickball league. It involves a rag-tag underdog team fighting for the championship, an extremely tangled web of relationships, and some occasional poor sportsmanship. When I first listened to this episode, I was on the train. I ended up laughing aloud so hard, I got some very weird looks from strangers (note: Normal Gossip is not a commute podcast, because it is absolutely laugh-out-loud funny).

The fact that gossip is fun, silly, and entertaining absolutely means that it has value in our relationships and culture.

When I asked McKinney why she decided to start a podcast about gossip, she told me that the entertaining quality was a huge part of it. “During the pandemic, I really missed fun gossip, and that fun, kind of fizzy feeling that you get when you’re with your friends,” she said. The fact that gossip is fun, silly, and entertaining absolutely means that it has value in our relationships. Finding entertainment in chit-chat doesn’t warrant the guilt we ascribe to it—it’s just not always that serious. Put simply, life’s a little too short to not enjoy a good morsel of gossip every once in a while.

Final thoughts

With all of this tea spilled about the good of gossip, it is important to acknowledge that gossip is not always positive. Alexis B. Kaufman, LCSW, explained to me that there are real risks to gossiping: “Gossiping can create mistrust in relationships, or conflict if the person the gossip is about finds out about your conversations,” she said. Kaufman noted that if your gut is telling you to keep something to yourself—maybe it’s too personal to slip into casual conversation, or the person you’re telling the gossip to might use the story irresponsibly—listen to that feeling. However, when used responsibly, gossip can act as a relational tool.

Spurred by my desire for “normal gossip” after listening to McKinney’s podcast, I eventually did find a community to chit-chat with in my post-grad city. Last weekend, I sat down for brunch with my three closest friends in the city and gossiped for the first time in several months, and it was delightful. It made me feel closer to the girls I’ve just started to get to know well, and it gave me a break from obsessing over celebrity gossip (of which there is plenty…thank you Taylor). So consider this your sign to incorporate a little more “normal gossip” into your own life, especially if you’re feeling a little lonely. If Normal Gossip has taught me anything, it’s that a good story is worth listening to.