Not all gossip is bad. Evolutionary psychologists say it’s even necessary for building relationships and fostering community; you don’t have to feel bad if you express concern for a friend’s well-being or spread the good news of your sister’s new baby, so long as your intentions and delivery are legit.

Instinctively, we know the difference between the type of social chatter that’s meant for good and the kind that just makes you feel like a mean girl. A recent study from the University of Ottawa reports that women gossip more than men, and are more likely to badmouth other women (eek!). The main instigator of this behavior is — you guessed it — competition. More specifically, competing for male affection. Not cool, ladies! Despite these findings, we’re hopeful the tide is changing; we now realize everyone one of us rises quicker if we grow together. If you find yourself falling into the negative gossip mill, try these tricks to recognize bad talk, avoid unhealthy conversations, and gracefully exit unproductive chitchat.

Two women gossip together

Discerning between good and bad gossip

There’s a fine line between harmless or prosocial chatter and negative talk. You start dishing about how cool someone’s new job is, and before long you’re ranting about how she’s acting aloof and blowing you off for said job. You may think you’re justified in this kind of venting, but it helps no one. Your friend looks bad; you look worse.

When you talk about someone else, think about whether the person would be hurt if they heard it. If you’re unsure, think about how you’d feel if the same thing were said about you. When in doubt, use Socrates’ “Test of Three”: Is it true? Is it good? Will it be useful to the person you’re telling? If it’s not proven to be true, is negative, and serves no purpose, talk about something else.

Kicking the Habit

This one is tricky because we often gossip without thinking, but you can start by being more aware of your conversations. Notice when you bring up another person and think about why you’re talking about them. Is it because you don’t have anything else to say? Brush up on current events and pop culture to have a broader repertoire. Or better yet, ask more questions about the people involved in the conversation. People love to talk about themselves, so it’s a win-win! Are you insecure and feel better when you point to others’ shortcomings? Deal with the root issue. For motivation, think about how gossiping makes you look: untrustworthy, catty, shallow — not cute.

Shifting or Exiting the Conversation  

So, what about when you’re not the one initiating the gossip? You probably don’t want to be rude by cutting the speaker off or come across as holier-than-thou. Gently steer the conversation by chiming in with an equally fascinating topic that only includes the people in the room. If you’re asked to weigh in on the gossip, plead the fifth or say something positive about the person. You can also try to turn the conversation around on them or yourself. As a last resort, step away to the bathroom or to get a drink. If it’s still happening when you return, consider leaving altogether.

How do you control gossip? Tweet us BritandCo!

(Photo via Getty)