Even though I know all this, I still can’t tell you how much I enjoy talking trash about other people. I feel guilty for it. I feel small and small-minded. I know that I shouldn’t derive so much joy and satisfaction from criticizing a person behind their back.
Still, I do it. In a pitiful attempt to exonerate myself from guilt, I’d say things like: “I know I shouldn’t say this, but …” Finally, my partner at the time told me, “Zach, for the love of God, stop. We all talk behind people’s backs. We get it. You’re a good person. I know that. You know that. Can we just get to the good stuff, please?”
I was floored by her response, but then erupted in laughter. Now, with the current guy I’m dating, we psychoanalyze everyone, acting like we’re professional shrinks. We don’t hold back. We talk about the attention-seekers; theorize about which of our friends are most likely to cheat on their partners; and complain about the ones who use their social anxiety as a get-out-of-jail-free card. We judge our friends who engage in unsafe sexual practices. And there’s nothing we love more than when a friend’s makeup makes them look like an orange, or stops abruptly at their jaw line.
What I’ve realized is that we’re the happiest, and we bond the most when we share negative opinions about other people. I’m not the first to realize this. There’s even a new dating app, Hater, that connects people by mutual dislikes.
And there’s actually research to support this. About 11 years ago, Jennifer K. Bosson, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida, conducted a study that illustrated how people bond through sharing negative attitudes about other people.
When I followed up with her a decade later, asking why romantic partners bond over this kind of gossip, she said it’s all about finding you have something in common.
“The discovery of shared negative attitudes promotes bonds because it creates in the listener a sense of increased familiarity, and familiarity is a powerful predictor of closeness and affection,” Bosson said in an email. “When someone reveals to me his or her dislike of a third party — and it just so happens that I feel the same way — then it gives me a sense of knowing the speaker a little bit more than I would feel if the speaker had revealed a shared positive attitude toward a third party.”
I’d actually like to take Bosson’s research one step further. I’d argue that, in sharing negative thoughts, you’re sharing “taboo” thoughts. As a society, we often praise agreeability and positivity. It’s rude to say negative things about people. So when we’re saying negative things about people, we’re being a tad bit more vulnerable. This vulnerability is another factor that facilitates close bonds.
This also helps to explain why I felt the need to preface any negative statement with my ex-partner. It wasn’t only that I was attempting to absolve my cognitive dissonance of being a good person but by feeling the urge to say negative things, I was nervous about saying something unpopular and therefore showing my vulnerability.
Of course, there’s always the unspoken question that lurks when you’re gossiping and judging others while with your friends or partners: Doesn’t that mean they’re bonding over nasty things behind your back, too?
The answer, unequivocally, is yes. While I surely like to think that I’m perfect, God knows that’s far from true. I know my partners and friends are saying things behind my back that would devastate me if I found out.
But in gossiping behind people’s backs I’ve learned something unexpected: Even though I say hurtful things, it’s not that I don’t like these people.
Take, for example, the people I mentioned above. The attention-seeker can undoubtedly be annoying. It’s not my business if a friend cheats on their spouse, though God knows it’s fun to speculate. I don’t rely on my friends who use their social anxiety as a crutch for everything. I simply don’t have sex with my friends who engage in unsafe sexual practices. And it’s not like I don’t want to hang out with a friend simply because her makeup makes her look more orange than our president. These are still people I like. Just like I know, that even though my partner is complaining about a number of negative things about me to his friends, he still wants to date me. Despite my many faults, he still loves me.
He just wants to bond with his friends and blow off some steam. Allowing him to do this and not questioning him on this is the best thing I can do as a partner.
Sorry, Mom. Discussing people doesn’t make me small-minded. It makes me a better partner and friend.