The art of gossip: 'No! I don't believe it!'

After one catfight too many, Lucy Silag decided to give up gossip for good. To her surprise, she soon discovered that life was impossible without it...

Not long ago, I decided to improve myself by doing the unthinkable. I decided to give up gossip. This wasn't going to be a half- hearted attempt to stop chit-chat, but a decision to stop saying anything at all about anyone else. There'd be no mild speculation about friends or colleagues and certainly never any hissing about people behind their back. I could never be accused of being two-faced or hypocritical and my soul would be all the sunnier for it.

I embarked on this project when I was still reeling from yet another catastrophic night out. Something someone said to one friend had been repeated (and so on) until we all ended up drunk, screaming or in tears outside a bar at four in the morning.

Conventional wisdom says that women gossip more than men; surprisingly, a recent study from the University of California claims that men are more talkative. "Gender differences may reflect a tendency among some men to control the conversational floor when interacting with women," the study said.

I believe you can get anyone to dish the dirt regardless of gender. I also believe that my attempt to be gossip-free is very timely. Last July a pastor from Kansas City called Will Bowen suggested to his congregation that they should all try to stop it. He handed out purple bracelets and challenged them to go 21 days without complaining or gossiping. Each time they did, they had to switch the bracelet to the other wrist and start again. Neither Bowen nor his 250-strong congregation had any idea how the practice would catch on. In the past year, nearly five million bracelets have been requested from across the world. Clearly, I'm not alone.

My scheme needed some parameters. Gossip is a concept we're all so familiar with that we tend not to define it in certain terms. It's with us at every moment, from the morning newscaster's political speculation to the glaring-hot headlines of the celebrity rags and the water-cooler conversations about last night's reality TV show. Gossip so pervades the fabric of civilised culture that even the most mundane information is fodder for incredibly lengthy discussion. In America right now, for example, the price of Hillary Clinton's haircuts is receiving attention from all of our major news outlets, while the exact location of where Britney Spears feeds her children ice-cream at the unmotherly hour of 9.30pm commanded a whole page in US Weekly.

My definition of gossip was as far-reaching as it gets. I reasoned to myself, if you're going to kick a habit, you might as well be strict about it. I resolved to entirely eradicate any exchange of information about the affairs of other people, positive or negative, true or untrue.

It was harder than I thought. At work, for example, when my boss asked me the whereabouts of a co-worker who hadn't been at her desk for the past hour, I wasn't able to say she'd run to Bergdorf to exchange an over-priced, but beautiful, pair of suede boots she'd been lucky enough to receive as a gift from her Wall Street boyfriend. I then wasn't able to tell my colleague how much I wish my boyfriend could afford to buy me some boots from Bergdorf because then I'd have commented on not only my co-worker and her boyfriend's affairs but also the financial affairs of my own boyfriend. More frustrating was when a friend suddenly had to move out of her boyfriend's apartment and rebuild her life from scratch, I couldn't tell her what a jerk I'd always thought he was.

"But that's not gossip," my boyfriend would say, rolling his eyes, when I was only able to give him short, curt answers about how my day went. Oh, but it was. I couldn't tell him how the girl on the vegetable stand overcharged me for the tomatoes and had then been a bitch about it when I picked her up on it. And I couldn't tell him that my sister had finally got a job she desperately wanted. I found I could hardly say anything at all. Everything in my life, since I do not live in a bubble, has to do with other people. The entire course of my day is a series of positive, negative or forgettable interactions with other people. What happens is not necessarily important; it's how it happens. "I went shopping for a new raincoat" is a considerably more mind-numbingly boring thing to tell someone than, "I went shopping for a new raincoat with my friend Julia, who told me a juicy story about her boss and a bunch of writers and publishers we all can't stand."

My conversation became severely stunted. Whenever I spoke, I felt like a loser who spouts unnecessary details no one cares to hear. Perhaps I went too far. I was in deep water just having to cut out gossip about my friends and family, but when I decided to stop gossiping about celebrities and public figures, too, I might has well have cut out my larynx. Anyone who has started a new school or job knows the drill. In the early bonding stages, you'll know who is to be friend or foe by their reaction to mentions of Britney Spears, Tom Cruise or Rudy Giuliani. It's how normal people get to know who they can trust in a new environment. How do you try to feel someone out without this spoken device? Could you truly make a new friend? Or would there forever be a gap between you of uncharted territory? What about dating? You might be able to glean political views, values and interests, but you'd never be totally sure of their character. After all, the way we often pass judgement on another is by seeing who they've passed judgement on.

Of all the self-righteous, self-imposed self-improvement schemes I've ever undertaken, giving up on gossip definitely left me the loneliest. Not to mention the quietest. It was only when I was stripped of the ability to talk freely about other people that I realised how much of my incessant commentary had been gossip rather than real opinions about things that actually matter. No one ever says in passing, "I hate it when guys make more money or get promoted faster than women", or "Oh my God, our ecological balance is falling apart and no one even realises it." Two hundred years from now, if someone had a recording of the conversations I'd had since I graduated college, and offered it as the sole document of what life was like in this era, you'd think I'd lived in a peaceful, vapid interlude where there were no wars, riots, inequalities or anything besides minor nuisances that required all my attention.

Before the gossip scheme finally crashed and burned, I found myself mute. I simply had nothing to contribute. "It's painful to watch you," my boyfriend said. "You've become pensive and dull." After a month or two my heart was no longer in it. In the end, gossip crept back into my life so slowly and innocuously at first that I barely noticed it. Then one night, over drinks, it all came flooding back. I found I was running off my mouth about something that was none of my business. I was once again an active participant in a conversation, rather than watching it from the sidelines. I took a deep breath, looked around to make sure none of the concerned parties were standing nearby, and launched into a full stream of bitching.

And you know what? It felt liberating and cathartic. I decided I'd become so staggeringly uninteresting that to be anything else – even a cantankerous, catty bitch – would be preferable. So I returned to my gossip-fuelled social life with relish. "It's good to have you back," my friends told me. "Your valuable input was sorely missed."

The art of good gossip

By Psychologist Dr Sandi Mann

A life without gossip is an admirable quest but one that is probably as unlikely as pledging to live a life without telling lies. Put simply, without gossip, we run out of things to say – and without things to say, we cannot build relationships.

Gossip does more than ensure topics of conversation – it can provide a more powerful bonding experience than any outward-bound course. Exchanging news about another person puts the gossiper and the receivers in an exclusive group from which the victim is necessarily excluded. This makes an " in-group" which, say social psychologists, is the very essence of strong bond formation. Sharing "secrets" with select others, hearing your own views reinforced by your friends and having the opportunity to scapegoat someone else – all these elements of gossip help bolster your own sense of group membership.

That is not to say that gossip should have no boundaries. Malicious gossip can backfire as it carries implications about respect; your friends may be eager to hear your nasty rumour-mongering, but will be less likely to trust you with their news or think of you as a likeable person.

The key is to engage in just enough harmless gossip to build bridges, but tune out of the really bitchy stuff before those bridges collapse around you.

Dr Mann is author of 'Managing Your Boss' (Hodder and Stoughton)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
Detective Tam Bui works for the Toronto Police force
news
News
The monkey made several attempts to revive his friend before he regained consciousness
video
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Darrell Banks’s ‘Open The Door To Your Heart’
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick