Collectively bitching in the group chat is a popular activity during these Trying Times. Somewhat understandably, everyone is behaving like a bit more of a dick right now and while globally, the stakes are much higher than usual, they’ve become much smaller in our interpersonal relationships: there’s nothing really going on in anyone’s personal life and we've got more time on our hands to dissect that nothingness – it's a perfect recipe for gossiping and, honestly, all this lockdown energy has to go somewhere.
Under normal circumstances frustrations could be offloaded in person, between friends and among people you trust not to misinterpret your annoyance at someone's Instagram feed as an actual hatred of the person. Sure, it would have found its way in the group chat too. But right now, the group chat is all we have left. The pub garden, the cup of tea at Mom’s house, the kitchen at work have all migrated and morphed into encrypted chats.
Before writing off an increase in gossip as entirely petty, it's worth noting that gossiping is actually (maybe) sort of good for you, and in turn, good for society. As journalist Kate Murphy writes in her book (You're Not Listening, extracted here) about what we're not hearing and why it matters: "Gossip allows us to judge who is trustworthy, who we want to emulate, how much we can get away with, and who are likely allies or adversaries." Listening to gossip can help us develop an ethical and moral compass and learn how we want to position ourselves in society.
Not only does gossiping serve as a way to bond and feel closer to each other (especially at this time, when we still have to socially distance) but Kate also points out that it can act as a form of validation and helps us improve as people. "Dutch researchers found that listening to positive gossip made people try to behave in a similar way, and negative gossip made people feel better about themselves. Another study showed that the more shocked or upset you are by gossip, the more likely it is that you’ll learn a lesson from it."
Gossip is particularly important in a work context right now. Working from home has its perks but the inability to talk in person can lead to frustrations and miscommunications that can only reliably be overcome by venting with people who are also in your situation. And given how precarious employment is right now, it acts as a powerful organisational tool: gossiping with your colleagues about what's going on in the digital office can help you get a picture of how your work situation is being affected by the pandemic.
Just as gossip can bring you closer to others or help you reevaluate your situation, it can also save you from yourself. We’re living through a deeply tense and confusing time; anyone is capable of lashing out or saying things they wouldn’t ordinarily say after even a moment's consideration. Having a safe space with people you trust to get this energy out saves any risk of misinterpretation, unnecessarily hurt feelings or being hounded on social media. Not only that, it gives you that little bit of space to consider if there are any grounds for the gossip you're sharing and to think about how you really feel before being swept up in a Twitter tirade against someone you’ll never meet.
As trite as it can sound, it is important to be kind now more than ever. Instead of group chat bitching making us meaner, it can actually make us more caring by taking gossipy energy away from the public domain, connecting us more to the people around us and helping us reevaluate if what was annoying us on Instagram is even a big deal (inevitably, it isn’t). Having the chance to connect, moan and dispel internalised resentment is one of my favourite ways to feel like we're together right now, even when we’re so far apart.