“Imagine. You discover that two of your direct colleagues are having an affair. You are working as an intern for an international organisation for a few months already. Would you gossip about that? Should you?,” I ask my third year, international communications students during a class called Internship Prep. The theme of this class is gossip.
They laugh, joke a bit, and all agree that this bit of information is juicy indeed, but most answer that no, they would take the moral high ground and keep the information to themselves. “It would reflect badly on me if I gossip,” one student explains.
I insist. “Would you want to hear the gossip about the affair from your colleagues? What could you gain from this knowledge?”
The students, generally, perceive this type of gossip as negative. “Actually it’s none of my business,” one says. “If someone gossips like this to me, I think they will also be gossiping about me…”.
Indeed, I tell the students, that traditionally, gossip is usually perceived as negative. Psychologists generally define it as an indirect form of aggression, a bit like teasing: the target is depicted in an unflattering light. The motive of gossip is thus to harm others by damaging their reputations.
But according to many academic studies, gossip can be a valuable form of social communication. For example, Grosser, Lopez-Kidwell, and Labianca define gossip as “positive or negative information exchanged about an absent third party.” It is different from rumours, where false information can be circulated. (Most academic studies distinguish between the two). Defined in this way, gossip is inevitable. Indeed, studies show that up to two thirds of all conversations include some references to third-party doings. On the content of every day conversation, gossip accounts for approximately 65% of speaking time.
Moreover, according to Baumeister, Vohs, and Zhang, gossip is “observational learning of a cultural kind.” By hearing about people’s negative experiences, we may be able to avoid their mistakes and pitfalls. Therefore, gossip helps transmit information about the rules, norms, and other guidelines for living in a culture. Not only does it educate the listener about social norms, but it also affirms them.
Therefore, employees can learn about their organisations’ policies towards relationships with colleagues, for example. While in one American multi-national, having an affair with a colleague could lead to immediate dismissal, in another Dutch organisation, the same affair would hardly have any consequences. Rather than learning the hard way, employees prefer to find out via the grapevine what happened to others in a similar situation.
I remind the students about their internal communications classes, and how they often have to map an organisation’s structure to understand how communication flows internally. Who is at the top and who is at the bottom, in which departments? Which employees are the decision makers? “Imagine if the CEO is having an affair with the secretary. Even though she is at the bottom of the pyramid in the organisation, she will have a lot more power and influence than your line manager. Also if you go out drinking with your colleagues, and she is there, you would probably avoid dissing your boss if you know she is intimate with him…”
So… is it so bad to gossip? Not necessarily. According to Martinescu, gossip satisfies basic human needs, as it plays an important role in self-evaluation. Gossip recipients tend to use positive and negative gossip to improve, promote and protect the self. Positive gossip gives success stories which encourages people to compare themselves to their peers, which leads to self-improvement. Negative gossip, on the other hand, has a higher self-promotion value and raises higher self-protection concerns than positive gossip. To whom you gossip and how you do it, will also determine the effect you will have on your colleagues.
Research shows that participants judged the teller of gossip harshly when the teller used gossip for self-serving reasons, whereas judgement about the gossiper was more neutral when gossip was used to warn others of rule violations. A study even revealed that failing to gossip can even lead to negative consequences. According to one study, an employee who did not pass along some gossip that could have been beneficial to a colleague, was poorly evaluated.
Take the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. Canada’s famous CBC host of radio programme Q was recently fired from the CBC, and convicted for sexual assault. The Toronto Star claims that rumours were rife in media circles about Jian Ghomeshi’s behavior around women, and cites incidents starting in 2007. Apparently, colleagues at the CBC heard quite some stories about him as well. But noone (including HR, despite receiving formal complaints) took actions to investigate his behavior. Now that the scandal irrupted, the question on everyone’s lips is: why wasn’t the gossip taken more seriously? Why didn’t anyone do anything?
After discussing this case, all the students agreed that they would like to be warned before starting an internship, if their boss had that sort of reputation…