In an episode of The Office, manager Michael Scott has the feeling that everyone in the office is in the loop when it comes to the latest gossip – except him. “I hate, hate, hate being left out,” he says. “It’s like not being picked for a team, or being picked for a team and showing up, and then realizing the team doesn’t exist. Or that the sport doesn’t exist…”
Many researchers would understand why Michael is so upset, as they have established a strong correlation between gossip and power. Dunbar (as cited by Farley, 2011), for example, claims that gossip “communicates alliances, increases the intimacy of social bonds, and delineates the distinction between the in-group and the out-group” (p. 574).
According to Farley (2011), researchers have found that sorority girls who gossiped the most emerged as the most influential clique in the sorority. Similarly, Grosser et al. (2010) show that individuals who are highly active gossipers benefit from higher levels of informal influence by their peers: they bond more easily with their colleagues and enjoy stronger friendships. And friends are much more likely to exchange negative gossip than two people who only share instrumental work ties.
Therefore, to boost his influence and popularity, Michael starts spreading a rumor about one of his colleagues, who he claims, is having an affair. “I am very happy right now,” he confides. “When you have somebody’s undivided attention and their eyes are lighting up because they are very interested in what you say, that’s a great feeling! It is wonderful to be the centre of attention.”
While Michael may get an instant high from sharing a juicy piece of gossip, Cole and Scrivener (2013) show that gossipers usually tend to suffer from a lower self-esteem right after giving negative gossip about a target person. Even when gossipers share positive gossip, their self-esteem does not rise. (It does not lower, but just stays the same). The authors also asked their subjects to gossip positively and negatively about someone they know, and found that regardless of the valence of the gossip, they didn’t feel as good about themselves right after the session. Cole and Scrivener believe that despite the negative consequences, people still gossip because of the immediate gratification and bonding experiences it provides.
However, Farley (2011) found that in the long run, high frequency gossipers were a lot less popular than low frequency gossipers, and that negative gossipers were less liked than positive gossipers. The high frequency negative gossipers were most disliked of all. Despite the impression that gossipers may have a lot of friends, she argues that this is just an illusion. People may like to have gossipers in their social networks to stay informed, but tend to keep them at arm’s length.
Moreover, Farley claims that high-frequency negative gossipers are perceived as much less powerful than low frequency, positive gossipers. Although this contradicts the notion and findings that information –and gossip– is power, an explanation could be that the relationship between gossip and social power is curvilinear.
“Individuals may be at the low end of the gossiping spectrum because they are not socially attuned or because they have been marginalised from the social network.” On the other end of the spectrum, people who gossip frequently may be perceived as “indiscriminate, unselective and untrustworthy” (Farley, 2011, p. 579).
The author concludes that the optimal use of gossip probably lies somewhere in the middle: socially successful people will use gossip selectively.
But the big question then, is how can one gossip optimally?
In The Office, Michael uses gossip unselectively, and spreads as many rumors as he can to take the attention away from a mistake he made… And is that not another reason why we sometimes gossip? If the attention is turned towards someone or something else, maybe others won’t notice our short-comings and flaws?