It’s a rush to realize you dislike the same person as someone else. There’s a delicate, intoxicating dance: throwing out oblique criticisms and prowling around the edges until one person takes the leap and bravely says: “Honestly, they kind of suck.”
Soaking up the golden rays of your rightness and another’s wrongness can feel exhilarating. Then, sometimes, there’s a comedown. It hits a little later, or even while you’re making a snarky comment: a sour taste in your mouth that makes you wonder if you went too far.
Is there such a thing as too much trash talk? Where is the line? And why do we love it?
Why do we trash talk?
There is one defense – people have done it for centuries.
“It’s hard to say what is the earliest insult on record, as ‘insult’ is always sort of subjective,” Dr Hans Bork, an assistant professor of classics at Stanford University whose research includes insults and humor in Latin comedy, writes over email.
He’s seen references to insults in ancient Hittite and Babylonian texts, and notes that Homer’s Iliad is basically all about insults. Its core plot “begins after King Agamemnon insults and mocks Achilles, the best of the Greek warriors”, he says. “Achilles at one point calls Agamemnon a ‘wine sack, with a dog’s eyes, with a deer’s heart’.”
Trash talk and its associated practices (gossiping, venting) are also important tools that help us socially orient ourselves.
“We’re navigating a pretty complex social environment,” says Dr Maurice Schweitzer, Cecilia Yen Koo professor and professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and co-author of Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both.
Schweitzer distinguishes trash talk – which he defines as “competitive incivility” – from gossip, which he believes can have beneficial effects. Gossip, Schweitzer says, can help us define the norms and boundaries of a given environment, be it a workplace or a social circle. Gossip helps people bond, in part by positioning those who partake in opposition to those they’re gossiping about. This creates an “in-group” and an “out-group”, he explains.
This kind of information sharing can serve to warn others away from people who have behaved badly. In its more common, and often less admirable forms, gossip signals our values and allegiances. Complaining about someone being rude indicates that you don’t think their actions are acceptable. The complaint also implies questions: do you agree? Can I trust you?
And sometimes, we’re just annoyed and need to vent. If the person we’re talking to is receptive, the rush we feel is a real chemical reaction.
When you are complaining and another person shows you empathy, you release stress and oxytocin, a “bonding chemical”, says Dr Eman Almusawi, a therapist and clinical director of A Better Life Therapy in New Hope, Pennsylvania. “So it’s going to feel good in the moment.”
It’s easy to go too far, though. “If it’s too much, it becomes toxic,” Almusawi says.
What separates trash talk from meanness?
Schweitzer says figuring out what crosses the line is more of an art than a science; it depends on context and your relationship to the listener. Bad-mouthing a colleague to your boss is different to letting off steam at a casual happy hour with friends.
One bitter irony, Schweitzer notes, is that groups often accord greater latitude to people with power even though their bad-mouthing can have more deleterious effects. In effect, we can be too forgiving of someone punching down. “When higher power people say something, it is more damaging,” Schweitzer says. “Their words are far more powerful, and they should be more responsible.”
Being able to read the situation correctly comes with time and experience. Middle school, Schweitzer says, is when a lot of people start experimenting with the boundaries of gossip. Kids learn the social repercussions of trash talk, and that bonding with one person over gossip can wreck their relationship with another. “Sometimes we need to cross the line to figure out where the line is,” Schweitzer says.
How much trash talking is too much?
Almusawi says there’s a fine line between healthy and unhealthy venting, but that you can determine on which side you fall by asking three questions: why are you venting? Who do you do it with? And how often do you do it?
If you’re trying to talk out your own thoughts and emotions, Almusawi says, then venting can be a useful way to work through your experience. But if you start trashing things the person has done that have nothing to do with you, that’s a sign that the venting has become unhelpful.
Complaining to the right person can make a difference too. Can the recipient listen, provide a calm atmosphere and help you constructively process your emotions? Or will they add fuel to the fire?
Also consider how often you’re venting about any particular person. Determining the amount is a personal calculation and depends on the situation, but gossip is like anything else, Almusawi says: “There’s a limit to everything. Everything is good until it’s not.”
Too much trash talking can do damage to both the speaker and the listener, Almusawi explains. If you frequently put people down, your own reputation could suffer as others lose respect for and trust in you. And even if the trash talk is not about them, Almusawi says the negativity creates “an atmosphere of suspicion”, where listeners are left wondering if they’re the subject of such bad mouthing when they’re not around.
Finally, Almusawi says, be honest with yourself about the potential fallout of gossip. “It’s not bad if it’s not harming anyone else. It’s bad if we’re talking about someone else, and trashing them, and causing them harm.”
So is trash talking good for me or bad for me?
Hope that helps!