Gossip can help people connect, but be careful not to hurt

Story by Erin Hill Perry
(Detroit Free Press/MCT)
Sun, Jun 19, 2011
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DETROIT — Charles Fritts of Detroit loves to discuss people, places and things with anybody who will listen. He’s got the title to prove it, too: “Class Gossip.” And he’s proud of it.

“A lot of people hear gossip, and think it has this really bad negative connotation,” says Fritts, 17, who graduated last week from Northwestern High School in Detroit. “I don’t really think of it that way, so I was actually excited.”

To him, gossiping is more than just spreading rumors. Fritts says his gift of gab is an interpersonal skill that helps him connect with people — even make friends. He might be on to something.

According to a study, “I Feel Like I Know You: Sharing Negative Attitudes of Others Promotes Feelings of Familiarity,” published in April in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, gossip creates closeness among participants, especially when the conversation features shared negative views.

“It’s not surprising that the young man who was voted ’Class Gossip’ is also popular,” says Jonathan Weaver, an author of the study and a graduate student in the psychology department at the University of South Florida.

“Knowing how to suitably gossip may be a skill that can be used in friendship formation. It can not only bond people, but show off the gossiper’s knowledge of his/her social surroundings.”

It makes perfect sense to Fritts, who says he only gossips with people who he knows have similar opinions.

“You don’t give negative information to people you’re not fond of, and you don’t give negative information to people who don’t feel the same way as you,” he explains. “Otherwise, you run the risk of stabbing your own self in the back.”

Deniece Parks, 18, is Fritts’ favorite gossip buddy, though it’s clear he does most of the talking and she’s reins him in when he gets out of line. In fact, it’s the story of how they became friends.

When she was the new girl in class last year, Fritts approached her, asked her what in the world was she wearing, told her she was pretty and then, like a true friend, warned her about the ladies’ man in the corner who would inevitably try to hit on her.

Since then, they’ve been the best of friends. Even though he’s a motor mouth and tries to tell her who to date, Parks says Fritts is a solid friend.

“He makes you feel comfortable enough to talk to him about anything you want to get off your mind,” says Parks, who also graduated from Northwestern last week and is headed to the Air Force in August. “A lot of people at our school didn’t have someone they could really talk to, but Charles ... he’s just approachable.”

It’s only natural for people to wonder if the same people gossiping with them are the same people gossiping about them. Parks says she isn’t concerned about that or being labeled guilty by association for hanging with the guy who knows and tells everybody’s business at school.

Well, almost everybody.

“I know too much stuff about him,” she says with a laugh. “If he starts talking about me, we’ll be talking back and forth all day! But I won’t ever tell his business, and he would never tell mine.”

Fritts, who plans to attend Bowling Green State University in the fall, says when he gossips, he’s simply giving people what they want.

“The truth of the matter is, when you want people to listen, you feed them negatives. ... That’s what they want. When you give it to them, they latch on to you,” he says.

But that’s also the downside of gossiping. While it creates bonds, it often spawns animosity and destroys friendships.

“I would advise to be very careful about the type of gossip one is spreading because it can be more hurtful than one could imagine,” Weaver says.

Fritts also realizes that others are likely gossiping about him.

“It’s a good sign,” Fritts says. “I know my existence has some type of importance.”

What does he think about his chatterbox trait?

“It’s innate,” Fritts says. “It’s like lying. People say they don’t do it, but they do it without even noticing it.”

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