The benefits of showing your bitchy side
In a New York nursing home, a bunch of 80-year-old women are sitting around in cliques, bitching about each other.
They’re also hogging the communal television set, saving seats at the dinner table for “certain” people and bossing each other around during the leisure activities: That is not how you play bridge, Ethel, so you can’t come anymore!
I’d like to think they’re wearing hair nets, knitting for their grandkids and drinking copious cups of tea with lipstick smeared on the cup,while they’re doing it. But the point is they’re doing it – mouthing off about each other, just like a bunch of teenagers.
That’s because growing old is akin to the worst of our teenage years. Or so say the social workers who visit these women and others just like them on a regular basis. Like Dr Bonifas who told the New York Times that when humans feel vulnerable or insecure; social bullying is our immediate fallback position. “It gives them a sense that they’re important,” she said.
Bitchy behaviour has long been considered the domain of women and quite rightly. You’d be hard pressed to find an (honest) woman whose regular tete-a-tete doesn’t include a dissection of another female friend’s life.
But it’s wrong to assume that means it’s also just bad behaviour. Having a good old whinge-fest is a great way of expressing our emotions.
That’s probably why we start so young. Clinical psychologist Cindy Nour says most girls start gossiping about each other from age nine or ten; the age when we first start making friends that are important to us. She says from that age our most common discussion points are around comparison and questioning. We ask each other: Would you do that? How would that feel? What do you think that means? And in so doing, develop our own judgements.
Remember when the first of your friends go their ears pierced, or even started their period. The fascination and curiosity that surrounded your questions back then can be just as easily seen in the conversations of 20-year-old girls dissecting their relationships.
Interestingly enough men don’t share this habit. Psychologist Hagai Avisar says males value privacy, so their feelings tend to be secrets. If they do share, it is a sign of either great courage or great trust in the person with whom they’ve confided.
They get their closeness from shared projects or teams, like sport, business and leisure time. When they do gossip it will be about leaders, or colleagues or their bosses; where the relationships are based on power or shared interests.
“Even in a kindergarten playground you will see girls playing and chatting away at the same time, while boys as young as three or four, will be playing in the sandpit, without saying a word,” he said.
Women, on the other hand, are biologically programmed to gossip. American doctor Shelley E Taylor told Psychology Today that females are believed to carry more of the oxytocins and endogenous opioid peptides, the hormones responsible for feelings of possession and aggression but also, nurture and closeness in our relationships.
That all sounds very impressive and technical, but completely glosses over the more obvious explanation - that having a massive gossip session is genuinely cathartic.
Talking about someone else’s problems allows you to explore your own reactions to situations you may never find yourself in. As long as you’re not breaking any codes of confidentiality, or directly hurting someone else’s feelings, it might even make you a better friend.
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