Research shows that most of us gossip for almost an hour a day. But is a bond built on gossip a friendship or frenemy?
Making friends is hard, whether you’re moving to a new school, uni, job, or neighbourhood. There is no formula, no checklist to tick off. Even similar interests are not a ‘bonding guarantee’.
That is why it can be tempting to cling to any possible connection to start up a friendship and become part of a group—and why it feels all too easy to join in with gossip.
In a complaint culture, gossiping is one of the easiest ways to connect with other people—but can a friendship built on mutual dislike of someone else be healthy?
Starting off on the Wrong Foot
Gossip is addictive—earlier this year, a study from the University of California–Riverside found that people gossip for an average of 52 minutes each day. People may gossip to feel powerful, to get attention, out of anger, boredom, or jealousy, and many do it to feel accepted and fit in.
Research professor and author Brené Brown
coined the term ‘common enemy intimacy’. It describes friendships built on mutual dislike of another person (or group of people), forged through gossip, complaints, and ‘venting’.
The relationship is formed quickly because of the intense shared emotion but carries with it an expectation and acceptance of complaining about your shared ‘enemy’.
‘Common enemy intimacy is counterfeit connection and the opposite of true belonging. If the bond we share with others is simply that we hate the same people, the intimacy we experience is often intense, immediately gratifying, and an easy way to discharge outrage and pain. It is not, however, fuel for real connection. It’s fuel that runs hot, burns fast, and leaves a trail of polluted emotion,’ says Brené, in her book Braving the Wilderness.
‘Common enemy intimacy’ sets a negative precedent, which can cause the friendship to turn sour, resulting in the relationship fizzling out or friends turning into ‘frenemies’. After all, how long will it take you to start projecting your negative feelings about those around you onto each other?
God and Gossip?
As the saying goes, people who gossip to you will also gossip about you.
God is clear on how he feels about gossip, recognising both its harmfulness and its addictiveness. In Proverbs 26:20–22, it says, ‘Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip quarrel dies down … The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts.’
God calls us to love both our neighbours and our enemies. When we gossip, we are not living out this instruction.
In Matthew 7, Jesus compared someone who followed his teachings to a person who builds their home on solid rock. When the storm hits, the house stands firm. In comparison, someone who ignores God’s word is like a person who builds a house on sand. When the storm hits, the foundation is tested, and the house falls.
In a similar way, when we build friendships on kindness, they’re solid and likely to survive. In comparison, a friendship built around mean girls or guys crumbles under pressure. No matter how strong it may seem on the surface, it is characterised by the toxic behaviour bubbling below.
Friend or Frenemy?
Think about how you met your friends and what you usually talk about. How often do complaints and gossip weave their way into your conversations?
If you recognise gossipy behaviour within your friendships, try to set a new example. In Ephesians 4:29, we are told, ‘Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen’. If you can’t add anything positive to the conversation, change the topic and try to strengthen the connections of the interests you share.
Would you prefer to spend time with someone who does nothing but gossip? Or would you want to be friends with a person who will walk with you during the tough times, who you can trust to keep things confidential, and who likes you for being you—not because you’re someone who they can vent to?
When you make the choice to be kinder and resist the urge to gossip, you will find your friendships are made stronger because of it.
Could You Go 21 Days Without Complaining?
The Complaint Free challenge was created by Will Bowen, a minister in the United States.
The test is to make it 21 days without complaining about anything—whether it’s intentionally nasty gossip or grumbling about the bus running late—and it takes most people 4–8 months to complete!
To challenge yourself, wear a wristband and every time you realise you are complaining about something, switch the wristband to your other hand. The aim is to pass 21 days without the wristband switching hands.
Maybe you can try this challenge with another friend, make each other accountable, and support one-another in making your conversations complaint-free.
Show the Goss Who’s Boss!
Here’s some tips for avoiding gossip without things getting super awkward:
1 Change the Topic. Whether you or somebody else starts to gossip, once you recognise it, gently switch the topic.
2 Initiate real talk. Get into some meaningful conversation about the person you are speaking to or a common interest, rather than somebody else.
3 Know the difference between talking about someone and gossiping. Be honest with yourself about when the conversation is harmful.
4 Speak life! Use positive words and practice finding the good in everyday life and in everybody you meet.