We hear a lot about how viruses are spreading these days… How infection rates are skyrocketing each day. Is the corona virus airborne? Can we catch it by touching a cereal box at the supermarket? Coincidentally (I assure you!) I’ve been reading a very interesting book, Contagious by Johan Berger, that examines what makes ideas– and gossip—catch on and spread. Why do some stories go viral, while others are barely talked about? What makes certain types of gossip spread like wildfire?
Berger, an expert in viral marketing, examines the power of word of mouth . As a marketing tool, he explains, it largely surpasses advertising. According to McKinsey Quarterly, “word of mouth generates more than twice the sales of paid advertising .” And it’s a lot cheaper.
Berger explains that six characteristics will make certain products or ideas become more viral or talked about. A few of these can definitely be applied to gossip in organizations, and help understand what triggers people to gossip and why certain stories spread more than others.
“Think about the last time someone shared a secret with you,” writes Berger. “Remember how earnestly she begged you not to tell a soul? And remember what you did next? Well, if you’re like most people, you probably went and told somebody else.” The author claims that if something is supposed to be a secret, people will be more tempted to talk about it. “Why? Because people love to share: their thoughts, their experiences, stories about others. People want to come across as smart, hip and entertaining.” By sharing a secret, you look like you’re in the know. It gives you status.
The more something is secret and shared with only a few people, the more special it is, and, (even if this seems rather counter-intuitive), the more likely it is to spread. But do be careful! You may come across as hip and entertaining , but you will not be considered as very trustworthy. As one of my students, Paul, from Indonesia, mentioned during a class discussion: “ If people seem to be talking to everyone, and sharing secrets with everyone, I would consider them to be less trustworthy. If I have the feeling that my friend only shares certain things with me, I will trust him and like him a lot more.”
A very important trigger for word of mouth (and gossip) is emotion. According to Berger, emotions that provoke physiological arousal will give people the urge to act and share certain stories. “Arousal,” he explains, “is a state of activation and readiness for action.” Certain positive emotions, such as awe, excitement and humor cause high arousal, whereas contentment, for example, low arousal. Therefore, if you share a story about people who are happy and have no worries, it will not be considered very interesting to share. “When people are content, they relax. Their heart rates slow, and their blood pressure decreases. They’re happy but they don’t particularly feel like doing anything.” However, if one of your colleagues achieves an awe inspiring feat and gets a promotion against all odds, for example, you will most likely want to share that story with others.
Similarly, certain negative emotions such as sadness induce low arousal, so sad stories are less likely to be shared. However, emotions like anger and anxiety have just the opposite effect. I still remember sitting in a restaurant with a group of friends. The food took two hours to come, and when the waiter finally came to me, just as all my friends were finishing their meals, said: “We don’t have your fish and chips anymore. We ran out.” He was rude. He didn’t apologize. Needless to say, I was furious, and had a strong urge to write a scathing review online. I didn’t, but certainly shared my experience with quite a few friends and colleagues.
Similarly, at work, when a colleague angers you, or a management decision (such as a merger or reorganization) provokes anxiety, you will most likely gossip about it.
Therefore, Berger would certainly advise managers that when they get wind that employees may be angry about certain decisions, they should address these before the gossip spreads, and eventually turns into harmful rumors. When words like ‘pissed off,’ ‘angry’ or ‘mad’ surface, this could indicate the likelihood that negative gossip could spread. “Fixing these high-arousal emotions early can mitigate the negativity before it snowballs,” the author states.
Not only are certain emotions more likely to trigger you to gossip, but also the type of situation and place you may find yourself in. In the Hollywood romantic comedy Can you keep a Secret? Emma, a New York junior marketing representative works for an organic food company. After having botched a sales deal in Chicago, she gets drunk on the flight back to New York. The plane suddenly hits a turbulent patch, and Emma is convinced they are going to crash. She turns to the handsome man sitting next to her, and starts spilling the beans about her work and relationship problems. (He later turns out to be the CEO of her company).
According to Berger, when people find themselves in such arousing situations, they are prone to overshare, and often disclose more than they should. “So be careful the next time you step off the treadmill, barely avoid a car accident, or experience a turbulent plane ride.”
Luckily, at this time where airplanes are grounded and gyms are closed, this is not so likely to happen. And as the corona virus continues to spread and infect large numbers of people, it has managed to eradicate a lot of office gossip, as most employees only see each other during online meetings. But that’s another story…
Berger, J. (2013). Contagious: Why things catch on. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.