A few weeks ago, I was invited by Cphbusiness School in Copenhagen to give two workshops about the role of gossip in Organizations. The students there are between 32 and 53 years old, and all have jobs while pursuing their studies on the side: for example, one works for a tourist organization, another for the Danish Tax Office,  one for Imerco (a company selling kitchen and household goods), and another for a “major telephone company in Copenhagen.”  They all seemed very keen to discuss how people gossip in their organisation.

Cphbusiness

In the first class I meet, I ask them what issues they discuss when “talking about an absent third party.” Most mention the colleague’s performance (or more interestingly: the lack thereof), while some bring up the physical appearance of certain colleagues, “especially when summer comes around and they start to wear lighter clothes.”

Several students quickly point out that ‘Jantelov’ in Denmark plays a huge role in how and why people gossip. People who stick out or brag about their achievements will quickly become the object of gossip.

Jantelov, I find out, means “The Law of Jante,” and was coined in 1933 by Danish author Aksel Sandemose. In his book ‘En Flytning Krysser Sitt Spor’ (A fugitive crosses his tracks), he lists 10 rules that dictate how Scandinavians should think about one another.

Jantelov rules

A student says that Jantelov not only affects who you will gossip about, but also how you will be perceived as a gossiper… If you gossip to put yourself forward, or for competitive reasons, you will certainly be judged poorly by your listener.

A few days later, I follow up this discussion by sending them a questionnaire. I am curious what their concrete experiences are regarding Jantelov. Out of approximately 20 students, 9 fill out my questionnaire. All agree that Jantelov does play a role in the way they and their colleagues talk about other people:

“People gossip when somebody is working hard to be promoted and is doing it in a maybe ‘too’ self-confident way,” one student writes.

“If someone sticks out too much, or talks about himself too much. It doesn’t matter if he sticks out in a positive or negative way. Don’t think you are better than us.”

“[When people talk about how good they are], we will find examples to bring them down, and make comments on their mistakes.”

“If the boss makes a lot of money, or has an au-pair…”

“I’m studying and my company is paying for my education,” another student writes. “I have heard that there are rumours [going around] that I do not deserve it, and that they do not see the meaning of my education. I will probably leave the company when I am done.”

Another student writes: “ I believe, that the lower your income, the more you bitch about others who have things like an expensive car, for example. A colleague of mine got a new fur coat, and some people started to talk about how she could afford this with her salary… and that it was a bit over the top to wear it. For some of my colleagues, it’s a big part of their social life to talk about others! ”

Sunflower sticking out

To me, this sounds a bit like the ‘doe normaal’ culture in The Netherlands. (According to Hofstede, the Danes and the Dutch are actually quite similar).

To what extent are rules like Jantelov hidden?  How many foreigners undermine themselves at a new job in a new country, without even realising it? I suspect that cultural awareness plays a huge role in the art of gossiping efficiently…

To be continued.