I recently read an article “Gossip has It! An In-Depth Investigation of Malaysian Employees on Gossip Activities at Workplace.” The authors claim that “gossip activities in organisational settings are universal,” and that they occur despite the “boundaries of time, culture and geographical constraints.”
Really? The authors argue that, for Malaysian employees, gossip has the function to build group solidarity, entertain, and enforce group norms. And since these findings are similar to those of many American and European studies, the function of gossip in Malaysia is therefore the same as any place else in the world.
While this may be true, the real question for me is: how does Malaysian gossip differ from say, American or Dutch gossip? What are the hidden rules and codes of conduct?
I asked someone from Malaysia (who has been living in The Netherlands for a long time), whether she gossiped differently when speaking to Dutch friends or to Malaysian friends. “Certainly,” she said. “With Malaysians, we love to name drop. For example, I know the wife of a minister, and I had some juicy gossip about her, so it’s always a good way to break the ice at a party.” She tells me that sharing such gossip with someone she doesn’t know that well, is a way for her to gain the listener’s trust and friendship.
At a Dutch party, this would probably be quite different. In a society that has a low power distance, and where people don’t get overly excited about what politicians and celebrities do, gossiping about a minister’s wife would certainly not be a way to impress potential new friends. Dutch listeners would most likely perceive the gossiper poorly and trust her less (unless she was already a friend).
During my own research, we interviewed Chinese, Dutch and German students about their perceptions of various gossip scenarios. Nearly all of our interviewees said that they gossiped openly with friends and people they trust. Friends can tell you anything they like –no matter how bad or catty –and they will be excused. This seemed to me to be a universal rule that transcends culture and geographical constraints.
However, looking a little more closely, I realized that while all my interviewees spoke about ‘friendship’ and ‘trust,’ these notions have very different meanings to each of them. In her book, The Culture Map, Meyer describes how trust is built differently from one culture to the next. For example, the Dutch are extremely task based.
“Trust is built through business related activities. Work relationships are built and dropped easily, based on the practicality of the situation.” Many Dutch people separate their work and private lives very well. At the other end of Meyer’s culture map scale, the Chinese, for example, are a lot more relationship based: “Trust is built through sharing meals, evening drinks and visits at the coffee machine. Work relationships build up slowly over the long term”. The best way to act with people from such relationship based cultures, Meyer claims, is to be yourself and “show that you have nothing to hide.”
She stresses that in certain countries, such as in Spain, Brazil and many Asian countries, being too positive when speaking about others may make you look inauthentic and fake. Meyer quotes a Spaniard’s perception of Americans: “They don’t dare complain or show negative emotion. In Spanish culture, we put a strong value on the importance of being autentico, and we perceive Americans as not being authentic”.
I clearly remember a moment when I was gossiping with a Dutch colleague that I did not know so well. I was trying to be autentico, and criticized another colleague quite vocally and not in the kindest of ways. I tried to convey to my listener that she could trust me since I was being so open with her. But from her body language and facial expressions, I could tell that she felt just the opposite… and soon realized that I had put my foot in my mouth and damaged the potential trust between us.
There are quite some studies on gossip and quite a few on intercultural communication, according to Watson. But there are hardly any on intercultural gossip… This is surprising given how organisations are becoming increasingly diverse and operating in various countries. Seeing how easy it is to damage the trust between members of multicultural teams, I am surprised that not more work has been done in this area.
Manaf, M., Ghani, E. & Jais, I. (2013). Gossip has it! An in-depth investigation of Malaysian employees on gossip activities at the workplace. Canadian Social Science, Vol. 9 (4), 34-44.
Meyer, E. (2014). The Culture Map. New York, NY: Public Affairs.
Watson, D. (2012). Gender Differences in Gossip and Friendship. Springer Science and Business Media, LLC, 1-8.