A holiday gift for your emotions

Photo of barfight
Holiday parties do not have to be like this!

Holidays can be wonderful, but they can also be difficult if family or work relationships are strained. During the holidays, I see many people respond to difficult relationships by isolating themselves (or wishing they could), and I’d like to suggest a different tactic: gossip.

Hold on! I’m not talking about any old gossip. I suggest ethical empathic gossip.

There’s a little back story here.  Many years ago, I used to speak out against gossip, because I saw it as a very unhelpful thing. I thought it created bad relationships, because that’s what I saw all around me. However, when I returned to school and studied the social sciences, I learned that gossip is an extremely important social skill — especially in areas where direct communication is hindered in some way.

Gossip helps us figure out the social world: the rules, the relationships, and the secrets. Gossip is an irreplaceable form of informal information gathering.

Gossip is very important, especially in relationships that are troubled. However, gossip can be toxic if all we do is whisper about other people as we try to build allies for “our side” of the conflict. Luckily, if you know how to gossip ethically, you can attain new information about a person you’re in conflict with, and you may be able to get new ideas about how to deal with that person. Skillful gossip can exponentially increase your social awareness, and ethical gossip can help you repair troubled relationships (or at least get a fresh outlook on them).


Gossip is an irreplaceable part of social life, communication, and emotional health. Numerous studies suggest that gossip is universal, and is undertaken by people of all ages and both genders. Gossip is the tool we use to convey and understand the unwritten social and emotional rules of each social situation we encounter, and gossip is a way to attain closeness in relationships. Gossip also relieves inner tension — because it allows us to share the emotive and empathic impressions we have about others but are not allowed to mention in public.

Gossip is a powerful, powerful thing, which is why it’s so important for awake people to use it ethically and empathically.

Gossip helps us connect to others, understand human behavior, identify or change our social position, and support (or undermine) rules and set them for others. Gossip is a very powerful thing! For sensitive and empathic people, because so much of what we see is not addressable or mentionable in public, gossip can be a wonderful stress-relieving tool.

However, one big problem with gossip is that it can subtly train us to talk about people, rather than talking to them. We can lose hold of our direct relationship skills, and our relationships can suffer if all we do is talk about people. Gossip can also lead us to invade the privacy of our gossip targets as we telegraph their behaviors all over the place. If we go back to the relationship we gossiped about without addressing the conflict more directly, there will always be this thing hanging out there — this gossipy information that we hope never gets repeated.

Although gossip is necessary, it can be a very messy business if we aren’t ethical and conscientious about using it.

Gossip can also be very messy if we engage in it as a tool of social control. Unethical, unempathic gossip, of the kind you see on entertainment shows, or in cases where someone tries to destroy another person’s reputation, can be extremely endangering. Bullies often use gossip to break down their targets, and propaganda is a form of gossip that governments use to control their people, or to break down the regimes of other countries.

Gossip is a powerful, powerful thing, which is why it’s so important for awake people to use it ethically and empathically (and to avoid spreading or buying into gossip that seeks to control or damage others).

Gossip is as natural to us as breathing. Anthropologists see gossip in humans as a primal tool of socialization and connection — almost like the preening and grooming primates use to form social bonds. So gossip is older than humankind, and it’s necessary. But that’s no reason to let it be unconscious, derisive, or dangerous to others. If you can understand the connection and socialization gossip provides, you can turn gossip into a tool that will support your ethics and your relationships. You can turn gossip into an ethical empathic practice.

As you prepare for more holiday gatherings, and you’re cringing at the thought of being around certain people, find yourself a supportive partner (or a whole bunch of partners!) and use the power of gossip to make real changes in your life. Gossip is powerful, and it can be magical if you know how to use it!

Here are the guidelines for ethical empathic gossip with a supportive friend:

  1. Identify a person you gossip about consistently, and with whom your relationship has stalled.
  2. Open the gossip session by acknowledging your trouble in the relationship.
  3. Ask your friend for help in dealing with your gossip target. Ask for opinions, ideas, techniques, and skills that will help you re-enter the relationship in a different way.
  4. Go for it — just gossip.
  5. When your friend gives you feedback, pay attention.
  6. Close the gossip session with thanks, and then go back to the relationship with your new skills and insights — or let the relationship go if it’s too damaged to survive. Don’t go back in the same old way — because that’s what led to the need for gossip in the first place.

When your gossip is conscious and ethical, you’ll increase your social skills and your empathy, and you’ll become more able to create honest and healthy relationships. Learning to gossip ethically will also remind you that you can ask for – and receive – help in dealing with difficult emotions and difficult people.

Creating a practice for gossip is necessary because gossip needs to have boundaries set around it. It’s a powerful thing, gossip, and you want to wield it conscientiously. It’s also nice to introduce it to your friends so that you can gently ask (as they start to gossip) if they want input, or if they just want to gossip. Naming the gossip brings consciousness to it, and this skill can help you and your friends develop better relationship skills. Having said that, though, it’s still fun to get into a catty gossip fest every now and then!

The cool thing about ethical gossip is that it helps you build stronger relationships with your supportive friends while you deal with the fact that you’ve got a weakened relationship with your gossip target. This holiday season, give yourself the gift of gossip; just make sure it’s Ethical Empathic Gossip!

24 Responses

  1. la femme artiste
    | Reply

    Well, who’d a thought! Thank-you for this post as indeed the holidays are fast approaching.
    I have felt it was a just really hard day, but you have shed some light here about something that I am hearing tonight in such a way, as to help me see that I can shed the guilt I have carried about doing just as you speak: learning about social rules, codes, morés, by talking about patterns of behaviors in others mostly (as I perceive them) that bother me from time-to-time. Meaning, when I do speak about this I use neutral language, & do not speak about the person, only the behavior that is troubling to me for whatever reason.
    As I do still see “gossip” per se as a very tricky/toxic manner of communicating about others.
    Nevertheless, wow! This post has helped me end a long day, in potentially a more enlightened way of looking at myself, when I am feeling troubled in relationships! 🙂

    • Karla
      | Reply

      I know what you mean about the toxicity of gossip. Especially when people use it to rope you in and create allies for their side of the conflict. I created ethical empathic gossip as a way to protect myself from a few toxic gossipers in my life, and it really changed everything. One of the problems with unempathic, unethical gossip is that the gossiper can’t be challenged; the supposed truth of the gossip is gauged by its dramatic intensity. So the gossiper gets totally riled up, and you can’t sort of ask, “Wait, what do you think the other side of this story is?” because it will look as if you’re being disloyal to the gossiper (even though listening to unethical gossip is disloyal to the gossip target — aauuuggghh!). I found gossip really freaking miserable, which is why I characterized it as odious in my previous work.

      I’m glad I was able to learn more about it, and to see it as simply a tool, rather than an all bad or all good one. Gossip is like emotions; if you know how to use it, you’re brilliant. If you are unethical or unskilled at it, you’re a mess, and possibly a dangerous mess at that!

      Have some excellent holidays, and if you need to gossip, just tell your pal, “I know this is gossip, but I’d like some help reframing this relationship. Here’s what’s going on …” When I frame gossip in this way, I can actually see people relax, because they know they’re not going to be dragged into drama and disloyalty. Empathic skills rock!

  2. la femme artiste
    | Reply

    This input is so very usable, Karla_ because it is well-framed to boot, thanks! 🙂

  3. Katrina
    | Reply

    Wow. I realized, while reading this post, that this is exactly what I’ve been doing with my closest friend. When we get together, sometimes I just need someone to care about how I’ve been treated by people … or I need to be able to voice the truth about someone else’s behavior.

    I try to be careful not to characterize other people with stereotypes; I recognize that we all have wounds, and people who have not dealt with theirs will often resort to behaviors that are toxic or unhealthy for others (and for themselves).

    But I’m a human being, too, and sometimes the way that someone else treats me really hurts or makes me mad … and I need someone in my life that I can go to and say, “This happened,” and my friend says, “Well, of course you’re hurt and angry; I can absolutely understand why. Being treated like that is just not right.”

    Especially because I am so hard on myself that I will sometimes blame myself for situations that aren’t my fault. I’m getting better about that — and one thing that’s really helping is having this dear, close friend with whom I can be honest about things that happen … and as I’m being honest with him, I’m being honest with myself, too. I can say, “This negative voice in my head is telling me that if I’d just done this or that, this wouldn’t have happened. But I can’t take responsibility for someone else’s choices. I did the best I could. This isn’t my fault.”

    If I get really hard on myself, my friend will say, “Hey, don’t ‘should’ on yourself.” But when I’m able to give myself credit for the steps I’m taking (or have taken) in growth and maturity, he’s quick to say, “Yes, absolutely! Good for you!”

    People we can be honest with like that — in honorable, trustworthy, compassionate ways — are rare, priceless jewels.

  4. Thea Fast
    | Reply

    Thanks for clearing up this gossip thing and validating my experience. I tried to stop gossiping and I couldn’t. I don’t know that I’ve ever done it with conscious malicious intent. Then I was visiting with a bunch of friends and we started talking about some people, problems they were having and we were having with them and I made a comment about “not meaning to gossip”. Well, one of the women went on a feminist rant about how women have been silenced by calling their communication “gossip” and she was “up to here with it”. She had a point. All of us were communicating genuine concerns we had and out of sharing them we came up with resources and ideas on how to be more supportive of them and have our interactions with them be more manageable. It was truly encouraging compassion both for ourselves and our “targets”. So I decided to do my best to gossip authentically. I acknowledge that I’m in someone else’s business and what judgements I have about them. I accept that these are stories I’m making up about them and that they have their own about me. I report their behaviours and my emotions around them as honestly as I can and know I can never be completely honest due to the whole emotional/judgement filter thing. I ask for any context or information I don’t have and am open to my gossip partner having a contradictory or different experience of them. I look for what it is they are doing that really pisses me off the most and what information it may have for me about me in terms of things about me I still can’t stand and I’m a little more careful about falling in with any notion that pathologizes behaviour attributed mostly to women.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Katrina and Thea for jumping in to support gossip. It’s such a necessary aspect of communication, and it’s an irreplaceable tool, but it’s really stuck in the shadows (with emotions and empathy, I’d say), and surprise! All three tend to be connected to women or the feminine. Snore!

      I don’t know if I’m a masculinist, but I get peeved when I hear men being characterized as unemotional, nonempathic, or incapable of communicating (including gossiping). There’s a great book by neuroscientist Lise Eliot, PhD, that shows how absurd these sexist ideas are. Katrina’s best friend and gossip partner is male, and so is mine. I wrote about Dr. Eliot’s book earlier this year. It’s a great book!

  5. Katrina
    | Reply

    I’m with you, Karla. Spending so much time in the arts, especially theatre and dance, I have met men of all shapes and sizes and ages and walks of life who are capable of being tender, compassionate, gentle, caring, generous, and empathetic … and are still, in my eyes, strong, capable, masculine, “manly” men.

    In fact, I feel sorry for the men who feel that they must be “macho” (rude, arrogant, selfish, self-centered, boorish, vulgar, crude, ill-mannered, etc.) to feel like “real men.”

    The “real men” in my life are the ones who balance tenderness with strength, empathy with (healthy) authority, firmness with gentleness, who are not afraid to have emotions or show emotions — or to be strong or decisive; whose courage comes from the heart, not from some overblown sense of machismo.

    The same can be said of women, I think. Within myself, I try to achieve that same balance: to be strong, firm, decisive, and courageous — and tender, compassionate, gentle, and empathetic.

    It’s not easy being a woman in American society … but I’d say it’s probably not easy being a man, either. Regardless of our gender, we can offer, in empathy, value and support to the men and women in our lives who are striving, just as we are, to be well-balanced, fully-rounded human beings.

  6. Michael Stumpf
    | Reply

    Wow, Karla Thank You for being a masculinist. Iam one of those male-human types that has struggled to get my bearings in this fragmented world,where caring/interest in what’s it all about is met with frustration & H-H-ache. So thank you all for sharing the sanity that is possible, along with modeling the skills YEPEE & MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. Renee Benmeleh
    | Reply

    hi Karla,

    As usual, you are willing to go out on a limb to expose a word that has become villinized (is that a word?!). I have not been seen clearly in some circles where I have needed to process a conflict with someone is the circle, and people had issues about me processing it with them.
    I feel a sense of understanding on a personal level around the need to have another person just hear our experience and offer some useful feedback. If we set a rule that says “never speak about anyone if they are not present”, then we all have to pay a therapist to work something out, and while I was a raised well by a pack of therapists, I also believe we need community to help us get through what arises when we are a member of community!
    And hell YES it can be done empathically and ethically.

    Blessings dear one!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hah Renee – a “pack of therapists.” I see them on the Savannah, hunting and chasing down phobias and behavioral problems, and then laying around sleeping in the shade.

      Yes, we’re social primates, and gossip can be our friend!

      Hello Michael — Merry Christmas to you!

  8. Helen Shultz-Kamadulski
    | Reply

    Another great post Karla. I really appreciate the guidelines that, when followed, are the difference between unethical and destructive gossip and the ethical, constructive kind! Yay!!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Yay is right!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *