I recently gave a lecture about gossip to ninety Parisian students, as a part of their university’s online International Days. It was very efficient: in one click, I was in Paris. But it felt like I was suddenly parachuted in front of a crowded lecture hall with a blindfold on. No welcome ceremony, no coffee, no petits fours, no informal drinks to help me ease into it. I asked the bubbles on my computer: “Do you gossip differently now that everything is online?”

After a long silence, one icon started to flash on my screen: “Well, we gossip a lot less now, as nothing much is going on, and we have a lot less to talk about. There are no parties, very few social gatherings, and no physical lectures, so not much is happening.” Life is pretty boring these days, the students agreed.

Ask people working in a variety of organizations now, and their answers will have a similar ring. For example, Jamie (55), works in financial services in a large, international bank in the UK. “Now that I work remotely, the chances of me talking to other individuals is quite rare. In the past, when I was working in banks, there was quite a bit of gossip.”

Laszlo (26), is Hungarian and works for an American engineering company as project manager. “It’s harder to gossip now because everyone works online. You don’t even know so many things about other people’s lives because you don’t have a daily connection.” Before the pandemic, Laszlo recalls, colleagues would gossip during the lunch break, or other pauses.

Similarly, Daniel (45), who works as an IT architect at a bank in Hungary, explains: “Colleagues who were already close just keep in touch via the phone, Skype, or Teams, and their conversations just happen there. I think that the number of conversations decreased, though. Instead of gossiping daily, people now tend to do it weekly or monthly. In any case, it sure has decreased! Since March 2020, I think I’ve actually met 8 people out of 80 in person.”

Shrinking Networks

What are the long-term consequences of this trend on organizations and their corporate cultures? According to an article from Harvard Business Review, Research: We’re Losing Touch with Our Networks, during the pandemic, our personal networks have shrunk by nearly 16% –or by more than 200 people. Before the pandemic, an average person at work would interact with 11-16 people a day that (s)he didn’t know very well (between water cooler chats and random meetings in the hallway).

Since we spend a lot less time talking to strangers and distant colleagues during the pandemic, we tend to focus a lot more on family, friends, and close colleagues. This of course, can be an important source of comfort. However, losing touch with our distant acquaintances has serious consequences.

According to the authors: “For companies, it can lead to less creativity and more groupthink. People with fewer connections at work are less likely to identify with the organization.”

Chats in front of the coffee machine are certainly not a waste of time, as they lead to increased happiness and give employees a stronger sense of belonging to the organization.

Social biomes

Countless studies show how the lack of social contact during lockdown impacts our mental health and performance at work. But it’s not just about the amount of social contacts; the variety is also extremely important. In an article, The social biome: how to build nourishing friendships –and banish loneliness, communication professor Jeffrey Hall compares the social contacts in our lives to our food intake.

“Social interactions, like food, have “calories” that can make you feel socially nourished,” he explains. “And just as with what you eat, it is not just quantity that matters to health, but variety. Just as you need a mix of food groups on your plate, so you need a mix of modes of communication and types of relationship in your social diet.”

Therefore, it’s important to cultivate our more distant acquaintances, and try to find alternate ways of engaging in small talk with people. Participating in group chats on WhatsApp, for example, is a good first step, according to Hall. And even if we are struggling with Zoom fatigue, it’s well worthwhile to show up to virtual drinks at work.

By taking a few small steps like these, we’ll find out what is going on in the lives of our colleagues and we’ll have more to talk about. This will create fertile ground for more meaningful relationships, which in turn, will bring about some juicy gossip. In the end, we will feel more socially nourished.

Maybe this explains my cravings for almond croissants and red velvet cake, lately. I’ve been compensating. 

Dominique Darmon is a lecturer at The Hague University for Applied Sciences since 2012. She teaches courses such as Journalism and Media, Corporate Communications and Cross Cultural Communication Management. She coaches first year students and also supervises third years for their final papers and internships. Dominique has more than fifteen years of experience as a television producer: she worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, for Vision TV, (Canada’s national, multi-faith television network) and produced documentaries for OMNI Television, (a Canadian multi-cultural station). Dominique then worked for SNV (Netherlands Development Organisation) as international campaign manager. She designed, coordinated, and implemented the ‘Making a Difference’ campaign in association with Euronews. Her work took her around the world, to places such as Russia, Indonesia, Cuba, Iraq, Cambodia, Malawi, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea.

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