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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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