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January 2014: The Scuttlebutt on Gossip

A good friend told me her New Year’s resolution is giving up gossip. I don’t hear that very often, so it got me thinking.

The Oxford Dictionary defines gossip as “casual or unconstrained conversation about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.”

Destructive gossip

That negative spin might explain why most leaders respond skeptically to office grapevines. Destructive forms of gossip are all too familiar:

  1. Spreading “dirt” and misinformation through animated discussion of scandals, particularly those involving authority figures (Why do the media and the public seem to relish defrocking the wayward priest and embarrassing the slip-of-speech public servant?)

  2. Financially underwriting periodicals that feature titillating (and trivial) details about the personal lives of celebrities, and taking the time to discuss those juicy morsels with others.

  3. Expressing passive aggression through gossip – using triangles to deliberately smear or damage another’s standing or reputation, or to isolate or even ostracize one individual from a group.

  4. Replacing productive work time with idle talk about others. Essentially, asking a company to subsidize its employees for gossiping.

  5. Eroding group cohesion and trust by creating an environment of hyper-watchfulness (“Who’s talking about who today?” “Am I the subject of the gossip?”).

  6. Ratcheting up anxiety in a family or workplace by circulating rumors that make it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.

  7. Side-taking, launching behind-the-back attacks and soiling reputations that lead the most mature employees to leave an organization.

Much of our busybody chatter tends towards back-biting, criticism or fault-finding. Some ethicists have argued that negative gossip is worse than blackmail because at least blackmail gives the other party a choice. Gossip often takes place secretly, exacting silent damage on a person’s character or reputation.

Can there be any doubt that the behaviors cited above occur regularly and repeatedly in all but the most enlightened workplaces and families? If so, would banning or penalizing anyone who gossips be likely to work? Might marginalizing family blabbermouths backfire?

Is all gossip harmful?

Efforts to restrict gossiping miss an often overlooked possibility: not all gossip appears to be harmful. Surprisingly, certain types of “aimless” chatter seem to support more noble aims.

Observing signs that gossip essentially began with the dawn of language, evolutionary psychologists have suggested that “talking about others” became an important social bonding adaptation. The researchers contend that, like spiritual belief systems, gossip fostered group cohesion and survival by helping people keep abreast of what was going on in their social network.

British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, claims, “A sample of human conversations shows that about 60% of time is spent gossiping about relationships and personal experiences.”

Deborah Jones’ 1990 study of women’s oral culture suggested female gossip occurs in four varieties: “House talk” (exchanging information), “Scandal,” (judging the behavior of others), “Bitching” (expressing anger), and “Chatting” (intimate, mutual exchange).

Jones says that gossip is “a way of talking between women, intimate in style, personal and domestic in scope and setting, a female cultural event which springs from and perpetuates the restrictions of the female role, but also gives the comfort of validation.”

“Gossip gets a bad rap,” says Robb Willer, social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “What our research shows is that malicious gossip isn’t the only kind, that a lot of gossip serves a quite important social function. Much of what we call gossip is driven by a sincere desire to help others.”

“Good gossip”

I don’t have firm definitions of “good gossip,” but I do have a few questions for consideration:

  1. Is it accurate, as some historians claim, that the word “gossip” originated from the chatter that took place at early, ladies-only birthing rituals? If so, did such gossip calm and relax the women in labor?

  2. Do certain kinds of gossip promote morality and accountability? Might the fear of private ridicule help a deviant individual function more cooperatively?

  3. Could it turn out that gossip provides an “initiation” benefit for young women and men, socially grooming them to connect, build rapport and interact confidently with same-gender elders and peers?

  4. Might the sharing of information through gossip prove to be advantageous? For example, would social scuttlebutt help group members track others’ reputations, as in situations of lying, cheating or abuse?

  5. How many courtships have been jump-started by gossip interactions? How many future lovers began their relationship by scandal-mongering about a common third party? Might courtship gossip triangles strengthen intimacy in a twosome?

  6. At the very least, might gossip serve as a mechanism for disseminating important group information such as another member’s sickness, absence or other personal problem?

Today, with the advent of social media, gossip has achieved a fresh standard of acceptance. In a way, members of today’s society might risk social isolation and disenfranchisement if they refuse to participate in widespread gossip chains and popular chat practices. What percentage of US citizens under 60 has no involvement with cell phones, Facebook and tweeting?

Clearly, there’s social pressure to gossip.

The challenge lies in sifting harmful gossip from helpful gossip. When is a gossip incident socially destructive, and when is it merely a light-hearted way of connecting?

The art of deciding the utility of gossip seems a tricky challenge for leaders.

Maybe it just needs to get talked about.

5 Responses to “January 2014: The Scuttlebutt on Gossip”

  1. January 01, 2014 at 8:37 pm, John Caruso said:

I remember becoming a topic of office gossip because I wouldnt participate in cheap talk of others.

  1. January 02, 2014 at 1:18 pm, Sean O'Rourke said:

I think it is worth re-considering the value of positive ‘gossip’ in a workplace. Open-ended discussions about people’s behavior and actions in the workplace may be an informal means to talk about right/wrong and good/bad behavior as well as a collective way to reach understanding or appreciation of people’s intentions. I have seen very positive casual teaching moments arise from these seemingly “gossipy” situations. To try to ‘never speak of another in their absence’ however admirable is almost impossible and could lead to singular bias and close-minded thinking.

Good gossip may be more than a ‘light-hearted’ way to connect but an important way that we all learn how to navigate through the social workplace. There is enough research out there now suggesting that strong social networks affect productivity in multiple ways. Strong social networks produce social capital that are the benefits of cooperation between individuals and within groups. Gossip (both good and bad), a primary way that we communicate in social networks, can help us learn the right way to live in such a world. I would rather let what people think about other people be exposed to the light of collective reason and positive discussion than not.

  1. January 03, 2014 at 7:02 pm, Joseph said:

Enlightened people tend to listen more than talk…nirvana may grow out of gossip…but not in it.

  1. January 10, 2014 at 7:45 am, Paul said:

I’m watching a situation unfold where a community leader admitted a transgression to someone, who quietly told others. I think this will turn out to be a good thing.

I don’t know if he did this as a way of coming clean about what he did, or if it was a reactive way to ease his anxiety. From where I stand now, it looks like a positive thing that we know what happened. This matters in particular because someone else is now unfairly “taking the heat” related to this leader’s actions.

Although from the leader’s point of view, he’s currently angry that the news “got out,” I think we are closer to a positive resolution than we would be had we waited (possibly forever) for the leader to come clean to us directly, rather than “through the grape vine.”

  1. February 23, 2014 at 9:31 am, Paul said:

To follow up on this, what eventually happened was a “men’s meeting” was called, people spoke and listened, and the realities of what happened turned out to be somewhat less worse than what was previously imagined based on shreds of information.

Although I wouldn’t say everything is “rosy”, there’s more alignment than I’ve seen in a long time. It’s amazing what happens when people can get together and talk openly. It started from 2nd hand gossip, and ended up with 1st person interaction.

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