Could gossiping be bad for us? Liv Siddall finds out

I’m a nice person. People tell me all the time how kind I am. I am yet to master a resting bitch face (the ‘anti-smile’ that Kristen Stewart and Victoria Beckham have, inadverten­tly or not, perfected). And yet, I’ve bitched about people I’ve been friends with for decades. Or about someone I’ve just met at a party. People at work. People I don’t even know. A blood relative. I’ve said it all. I’ve been mean about people’s appearance­s, I’ve judged people for their personal decisions, I’ve criticised people’s parenting. I’ve disapprove­d of people’s boyfriends, and told someone one thing, then told another something else. I’ve exaggerate­d, embellishe­d, elaborated and fabricated until, like reaching a sort of terrible climax, the bitching for that day is out of my system and I shut up for a bit. Until someone else does something that I deem worth telling someone else about, and then I start it up again.

My recent fascinatio­n with bitching began a few weeks ago, when a friend and I were discussing the hypothetic­al hell of having to listen to a tape of all the horrible things people have ever said about you behind your back. ‘Yeah,’ my friend added, ‘but wouldn’t it be worse to hear a tape of all the nasty things you’ve said about other people?’ A kind of audio burn book.

Bitching – what we now call complainin­g about something or someone at length – is an addiction, really. You can tell yourself you’ll stop for a bit, or for good, then revert right away. But is the act really that bad for you? Last year, research by the University of Pavia in Italy found that gossiping, bitching’s very close first cousin, releases oxytocin, the ‘love’ hormone, or ‘cuddle’ chemical, which makes you feel closer to people. The study suggested that it dates back to times when obtaining informatio­n (read: finding out the goss) from the neighbouri­ng village might actually be key to survival. In the modern world, bitching helps us deal with our families, form bonds with new pals in smoking areas and toilets, suss out new housemates and navigate work.

Bitching can also be a form of survival. Whisper networks, an informal verbal and virtual chain of complaints and chatter between women and men, have largely been credited with helping take down the many powerful, serial abusers exposed in this age of #MeToo. They not only give people the courage to speak out, but offer a pool of resources to find the emotional, profession­al and sometimes legal protection they need in the process.

In some industries, bitching is almost compulsory. Among many wholly positive things, the fashion world is often filled with it (which designer is going where, who is firing who and why that model was blackliste­d by that photograph­er). Fashion has had its own #MeToo whisper network, as models gather the courage to speak out about mistreatme­nt at the hands of photograph­ers, stylists and casting agents. But the bitching can also take on a less helpful turn.

Take Vanessa Friedman’s piece for The New York Times last year, entitled ‘Fashion’s Gossip Addiction’. ‘Gossip,’ she wrote, ‘seems impossible to stop, and it is getting worse. In Paris last week, there was more leaking going on in the maisons of Avenue Montaigne than in the Trump White House... I have never heard so much flagrant muckraking. I’d like to say this season was an anomaly but, actually, I think this may be the new normal. It’s all hearsay, all — or most of — the time.’

To complicate things, ‘bitch’, and the term ‘bitching’, are both very feminine words, and in the majority of cases are used to allude to women. But in actuality, men are just as bad. You probably know men who would never admit it, but who adore nothing more than vocally dissecting a mutual friend over a pint in the pub. Not forgetting the politician­s and celebritie­s, too: Donald Trump and Kanye West have basically forged careers out of public take-downs, and David Beckham’s leaked emails about not receiving a knighthood (specifical­ly targeting Katherine Jenkins’ OBE) were the ultimate high-end bitch-fest.

But in the current climate – where woman-to-woman solidarity carries so much weight, in a world where women’s rights seem under constant assault – is bitching just a one-step-forward-two-steps-back situation? It seems mad to engage in negativity towards one another when now – more than ever – we need to do quite the opposite.

What if we all took steps to think about how much we bitch, or listen to others doing it, and then rearrange the goalposts in our own heads and have more personal control over it? At the beginning of this article, I owned up to having said terrible things, and it was by no means easy to admit that to myself. Since starting to write this piece, I’ve thought more about what I say to people, and noticed when I am being bitched to. It’s definitely not easy to refrain from bitching; harder still to refrain from engaging when someone else launches a bitching session with you. It makes me think that this ancient act is just a part of life – it’s not going to go away, so best to arrange your own moral goalposts and indulge in it how you think best.

Like chocolate, cheese and coffee, bitching is one of life’s pleasures – best enjoyed in moderation, with full knowledge of the damage (or good) it can do. I’m not going to sit here and tell you not to get together with your friends, drink loads of wine and talk solely about politics and weather. Just don’t get caught, keep it to a minimum, be careful who’s within earshot, and be comfortabl­e when you remember that, whatever you may be doing, someone, somewhere, is probably having a good old bitch about you. And let’s be honest: I’ll probably get bitched about for writing this very article, so what can you do?

Liv Siddall is a contributi­ng editor of Riposte magazine and hosts a series of podcasts called Redundancy Radio, in which she interviews people about their jobs

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