It starts as soon as my girlfriend and I are out of earshot, the inevitable epilogue to every double date. It doesn’t matter who speaks first; we both know the entire script by heart.
“That was fun,” one of us says.
“Yeah,” the other replies.
“They seem good.”
“I’m worried about them.”
We then quickly delve into specifics about the close friends we just hugged goodbye—the way she glared at him when he tipsily knocked over his wine glass or, if things seemed good, the way he gazed at her like she was a cross between the homecoming queen and Mother Theresa. If they seemed particularly dysfunctional, we can easily spend ten minutes analyzing their tone of voice and duration of eye contact with a degree of scrutiny that wouldn’t look out of a place in a CIA interrogation dossier.
Why am I so eager to publicly admit to being a serial gossip? The short answer: We all do it. Don’t believe me? Try this experiment—the next time you’re out with a couple, ask them about another couple in your social circle. What you’re almost certain to hear is a carefully considered, surprisingly nuanced joint theory on why the couple in question is totally right/horribly wrong for each other. What you almost certainly won’t hear is “You know, we’ve never really thought about it.”
The long answer is a little more complicated. When practiced responsibly, gossip isn’t necessarily a bad thing. According to a 2012 study out of the University of California, Berkeley, gossip can play an important role in policing antisocial behavior. When we witness someone behaving badly, gossiping about it relieves the tension caused by what we’ve seen, in addition to helping others avoid being harmed by the bad behavior.
For example, let’s say you and your significant other just left a dinner party hosted by a couple that bickered about everything from who overcooked the artichoke dip to who should do the dishes. The moment the elevator doors close you both burst into words, all of the snarky observations you’ve been composing in your head over the course of the night rushing out in a stream of rhetorical questions—“Did he really ask her if she ever got sick of her own voice? Did she laugh at even one of his jokes?”
As long as you’re not reveling in their misery this is perfectly OK—the two of you have just been through a mildly traumatic experience, and talking about it is a healthy way to deal with the stress. Things get tricky after that initial tension has been relieved and you start trying to make sense of what you observed. Inevitably, you will judge the other relationship through the prism of your own. Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this—all judgments are subjective and colored by our own personal experiences. The problem is that when we gossip about other couples we often use coded language to obliquely bring up issues we’re having with our own relationship, turning the prism into a mirror. Here are some (slightly exaggerated) examples of what we say, followed by what we really mean:
What We Say: “Don’t they know it’s considered rude to make out in public? I felt like I was in that scene in ‘A Christmas Story’ where the kid gets his tongue stuck to a pole, except they were stuck to each other and it wasn’t funny.”
What We Mean: “I can’t remember the last time we held hands in public.”
What We Say: “You can tell that he never really listens to her, you know?”
What We Mean: “What did I just say?”
What We Say: “They’re clearly drifting apart, but it’s like they don’t even see it.”
What We Mean: “Will we be able to see it if we start drifting apart? What if it’s happening right now? Seriously, when’s the last time we held hands in public?”
The key to making gossip work for you is avoiding the temptation to slip into code. It’s acceptable to use observations about another couple as a way to ease into a potentially difficult conversation about your own relationship, but force yourself to say what you mean. Otherwise the couple you’re so worried about will soon be just as worried about you.