For this episode I am talking to the queen of gossip (in a researchy way that is): Dominique Darmon. She is lecturer at International Communication Management and like me researcher for the research group Change Management. Her topic of investigation is the role of gossip in organizations, which she is currently writing a book about. And Dominique uses film to teach: ‘I like to use film a lot. In my classes and for the gossip research film clips are a really good way to start: to illustrate some ideas and then to start a discussion around that.’ We are going look at what a clip from The Devil Wears Prada (2006) can teach us about the perception of gossip, how it is linked to company values and the stereotyping:
Dominique: Often when I show this clip to students, I ask them about these two women, Emily and Serena, who are talking about Andy (Anne Hathaway) behind her back: ‘Do you like them? What do you think of them?’ At first a lot of students say, ‘They are ok’ because they find it normal to talk about someone that’s not performing very well. The fact that Andy did not understand the eyelash curler shows that she’s not very well attuned. She is also not dressing in the right way so she doesn’t really belong in the organization. That people would gossip about these things is kind of acceptable, students think it’s OK.
Then Andy comes in with her makeover and all of a sudden she looks great and she fits in. Emily and Serena both look at her in stunned way. Serena says: ‘You look really good’ and you can see that she’s changing her attitude towards Andy . So now that Andy’s fitting in the corporate culture, you can see that Serena’s more accepting. Students relate to that and say: ‘well, Serena’s OK’ and ‘I find her more trustworthy.’
But Emily says: ‘Oh, shut up Serena.’ And she’s huffing, and you can see that she is still negative towards Andy. Then you wonder what her reasons for gossiping are. Is she doing it for the right reasons? Is she more of a backstabber? Is she jealous and less noble? Emily doesn’t seem to be gossiping to preserve the corporate culture, but for other reasons. So when I have that discussion with students, and we analyze the two characters, (even though it’s a very short segment and you don’t really know what the characters’ motivations are), we are still able to reach valuable insights here.
Wypkje: I thought it was interesting that the perspective of this clip is from the perspective of the gossiper, not from the perspective of who’s being gossiped about. Because you see Emily and Serena in the office and they are gossiping about Andy not understanding the eyelash curler. And from behind their desk, at a bit of a distance they see the transformation of Andy. If you look at the camera shots, you’re closer to the gossipers than Andy. Transformation seems to be the theme as you have the transformation of Andy, but also the transformation of one of the gossipers, Serena. But the other gossiper Emily doesn’t really transform, even when she is presented with new facts of Andy adapting to the company culture now.
Dominique: Research also shows that people gossip for a variety of reasons, some that they do not like to admit. These reasons really determine how you will be perceived as a gossiper. When you gossip to preserve corporate culture values or to warn against free-loaders or cheaters, you will be well perceived. So, if Andy was taking advantage of people, then as a gossiper, you would be seen in a good light. But if you’re gossiping to get ahead or to backstab, you are going to be perceived in a negative way. And that is really well illustrated in this short clip.
I like exploring these grey areas of gossiping: when someone is perceived positively or negatively. It also has a lot to do with your culture, for instance which things are acceptable in certain cultures, like the way you speak about people. In the Netherlands, it’s OK to gossip with colleagues about their managers’ or other colleagues’ performance, for example, but you wouldn’t really gossip about their appearance or the way they look. In a Latin culture, it may be totally fine to do.
Another very interesting element of this clip is that there are a lot of stereotypes. It is often expected that women working for a fashion magazine will gossip. You would also expect this type of gossip in other professions like hairdressers or beauticians. The fashion industry is seen to attract women who are bitchy and backstabbing. And in general, gossip is what women do. And to add to that, women are perceived in a more negative way because they gossip.
You wouldn’t see such scenes in an engineering office with guys. But research shows that they do this too. Men also speak about each other in similar ways. You could also imagine that they would talk about a colleague: ‘Hey, can you imagine he picked up this hammer and he didn’t know what it was for’ and laugh about it over a beer. But for men, it’s OK. They’re not gossiping. They’re actually letting off steam, or they’re shooting the breeze. It’s normal for men to do that. So it is interesting to look at a clip and ask: ‘Why is it always women that are portrayed in that kind of role, and not men?’
I discuss this with my students. It’s also a very cultural thing as certain cultures are really convinced that women gossip a lot more and that it’s not a masculine thing to do. But the thing is men do gossip, but just don’t call it gossip. They’re also talking about an absent third party behind their backs.
Wypkje: Still, in the way you explained the origin of gossiping it makes sense that gossip is associated with women, as it comes from ‘God sib,’ meaning God’s sibling. So when a woman was pregnant being surrounded by her friends and God parents they were talking and waiting for the baby to be born – so overall it has a positive connotation. But then you explain that actually Shakespeare gives it a negative connotation in his plays when he stages gossiping women (played by men!) to be nosey and meddling in other people’s affairs. And this is still the main way to portray gossipers on the screen.
But should the gossiper not be framed more realistically on the screen, as research shows men do the same thing. Television and film is a very strong medium to create stereotypes but also breaking with them, and quite a few stereotypes of women have been broken, so we should also be able to break Shakespeare’s? Or is it still in the eye of the beholder when seeing women gossip it is gossip and they are viewed negatively and when men gossip it is just banter?
Dominique: Unfortunately, these stereotypes are quite strong. That’s why it’s important to be able to make students (and others) aware of these perceptions. But it’s also important for women in a work environment to realize that they will be perceived negatively a lot more quickly than men will be, even if they’re saying exactly the same thing. That’s why I advise women to be a little bit more careful before gossiping at work, especially with colleagues that they do not know so well.