During Onderzoeksdag on 15 April, at The Hague University, I gave a workshop about my research on gossip. A few colleagues from the Research Group Change Management also helped me conduct a small experiment.

Gossip WorkshopMy workshop on gossip is just about to start. While I am still setting up and uploading my prezi, two of my colleagues start talking about the key note speaker who gave a presentation on interactive landscapes, a few hours earlier. “What a lot of wind that was,” says one.

“Also very ethnocentric,” adds the other. “He spoke as if Holland is the center of the world, and all other countries are so far behind technologically. I can’t believe they pay people like this to give this type of talk.”

I am ready to start my presentation, but listen to their discussion. A few of the workshop participants look at my colleagues with curiosity. Another stares intently at her cell phone.

“Also, he looked so arrogant,” my colleague continues. “He was just standing there, so full of himself. The whole thing seems like a complete self-promotion.”

The woman looks away from her cell phone, and stares at me, visibly irritated. After a few minutes, she gestures to me, signalling that I should start. I smile at her, blankly.

“Why don’t you start now?” she asks a little angrily, one or two minutes later. She turns to my colleagues: “You’re taking up her time. It’s past 2 o’clock. She should start now.”

“So what did you think of the gentlemen there?” I ask the participants as a type of introduction to my presentation. “What did you think of their gossip?”

“They are really rude,” the woman answers. “For starters, they are taking up your time. I haven’t heard the key note speaker, but I find it really inappropriate to discuss him like that, especially in this setting. ”

“So if it had been during the drinks at the end of the day, that would have made it OK?”

“Well, maybe that would have been a bit better. But their tone of voice also really got to me.”

“Yes,” another participant adds, “they were quite relentless. Their criticism felt rather nasty.”

I reassure the participants: “My colleagues are actually very nice people, and they did like the key note speaker (who was quite good indeed). The whole thing is an act. The idea was to start gossiping about someone you would all have a good chance of knowing (such as the keynote speaker). To start with, the gossip would be about the quality of his presentation. Then, we would raise the level of criticism, and also gossip about his personality and appearance. The question is: when is gossip acceptable? And when does it start to feel inappropriate or unacceptable to you? At what point do you start getting a bad impression of a gossiper?”

Another participant answers: “It’s fine to be critical of someone like a key note speaker, but it’s how you express it. For me, as soon as you get personal, that’s where I draw the line.”

However, after a little more discussion, we realise that there are quite a few factors that determine where we draw the line. Indeed, location does play a role. Gossiping viciously over a glass of wine may be more acceptable than just before someone’s presentation.

Gossip Globe & Mail cartoonMoreover, as I explained to the workshop participants, the reasons why you gossip in the first place will influence the way you are perceived by your listeners. According to a study by Wilson (2000) and Beersma and van Klef (2008), gossipers are judged more harshly when they use gossip for self-serving reasons, whereas gossipers are perceived more positively when their intentions are to warn others of rule violations. While my colleagues’ intentions were clearly not to protect the group from a bad presentation, they certainly must have raised certain suspicions about their motives for trashing the key note speaker…

Another important factor that influences how gossipers are perceived is the relationship they share with the listener(s). Grosser et al. (2010) show that friends are much more likely to exchange negative gossip than two people who only share instrumental work ties. The more negative the gossip is, the more a gossiper needs to like and trust the listener in order to pull it off. According to Turner at al. (2003), if gossipers and listeners are not close, (or are strangers), gossiping may seem “awkward and unwarranted, thus decreasing perceptions of liking, trust, and expertise,” especially if the gossip is negative.

Since my colleagues did not know the participants of the workshop, it is only logical that their behavior would be frowned upon. This experiment did confirm the findings from these studies. I hadn’t expected the participants to react so vehemently, though. But that could be a cultural thing…