Opinion: “Spilling the Tea” is a Double-Edged Sword

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

Today, millennials classify gossip under the term “tea.” Whether the tea is spilled, given, or poured, it incites a unique excitement in us associated with an intense urge to know or, more specifically, to learn about others. According to a study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, we spend 52 minutes “spilling tea” every day. This exchange of information about people who aren’t present is entertaining and, in some ways, informative; however, it can also have detrimental effects on our social and emotional well-being.

Over time, gossip was the transporter of information and “has been crucial to our ability as a

species to evolve large social groups.” Being sociable allowed humans to share resources and stay safe.

In a 1993 study, Stockholm University professor and professor emeritus, Magnus Enquist and Olof Leimar, specify gossip as information that “honest” members in the group exchanged about “free riders.” Their analysis reveals that gossip enabled communities to protect their group from norm-violating individuals who took advantage of everyone else.

However, according to an article by the University of Amsterdam professors Bianca Beersma and Gerben A. Van Kleef, while there is much research about “social functions of gossip, little empirical research has been devoted to understanding the reasons why individual group members instigate gossip.” Beersma and Van Kleef conducted a series of studies from which they conclude that people gossip to “gather and validate information, to enjoy themselves with others, and to protect their group against norm violations.” Though they acknowledged that gossip could be beneficial, they also noted that “gossiping to influence others in a negative way” can have consequences and result in negative outcomes.

In another study, Staffordshire University professors Jennifer M. Colel and Hannah Scrivener revealed that gossipers may experience a reduction in self-esteem, and relayed that gossip targets could undergo reputational harm or invasions of privacy.

According to an article by psychologist Megan L. Robbins, gossip tends to be neutral rather than positive or negative. As per Psychology Today, even malicious gossip can be beneficial because it can reveal the present issue, foster cooperation, and self-improvement, alleviate anxiety, and recognize the truth. “Gossip is helping you to predict who is friend, and who is foe,” Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, told NPR.

In contrast, Van Kleef, and University of Groningen professors, Onne Janssen and Bernard A. Nijstad, found that “negative gossip, however, also generated other-directed negative emotions (e.g., anger), especially for targets with high reputational concerns.” This, in turn, resulted in intentions to retaliate against the gossiper, which means that “spilled tea” can also scorch our well-being by causing anger and breeding vengeance.

Whether gossip is positive or negative, about facts and general information, or about an individual, our daily need to “spill the tea” confirms our social nature and curious mindset. With the benefits and drawbacks of gossip in mind, it is crucial to refrain from engaging in unwholesome exchanges that spread negative information about someone else even while being aware that not all gossip is harmful.

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