There’s a hilarious scene in the film Johnny English with Rowan Atkinson. The clumsy, rather daft, secret agent tries to mingle at millionaire’s Pascal Sauvage’s party and flirts with an attractive woman, who introduces herself as Lorna Campbell (Natalie Imbruglia). He does not recognize Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich) who creeps up behind him. Johnny English grabs his bloody Mary, assuming Sauvage is the waiter: “Can you get some of those cheesy nibbles?” he asks him, and turns back to Lorna. “Now, where were we?” he asks her, plunging his eyes into hers.
“You obviously haven’t met our host, Monsieur Sauvage,” she says.
“No, thank God!” English scoffs. “You know, I think I’d rather have my bottom impaled on a giant cactus rather than exchange pleasantries with that jumped-up Frenchman. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing the French should be allowed to host is an invasion.”
English turns to face the man he believes to be the waiter, standing right behind him.
“Pascal Sauvage, the jumped-up Frenchman,” he says sarcastically, shaking Lorna Campbell’s hand. Johnny English’s awkward reaction and Lorna Campbell’s mortification are priceless.
Needless to say, the art of gossiping is to make sure that the absent third party remains, indeed, absent.
During an interview on national TV, Dutch premier Mark Rutte once claimed: “It’s good to gossip. As long as it stays a secret!” That was after he got caught gossiping about Trump with Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron, and Boris Johnson, during a reception at Buckingham Palace at a NATO convention.
And as Mark Rutte can surely testify, keeping the third party out of earshot is not as easy as it seems. Take the Pieter Omtzigt scandal that occurred soon after Rutte was reelected for the fourth time. During the cabinet formation talks, attendees suggested to give Omtzigt, a highly vocal and critical MP, another job to keep him away from parliament. One of the informants there took notes of the discussion, and when she walked out of the meeting, a photographer took pictures of the notes emerging from her purse. Suddenly, talks (and gossip) that were supposedly held during a private meeting, were out in the open for public consumption. Mark Rutte got into serious trouble, and his position of newly elected prime minister was on the line.
But as columnist Bert Keizer wrote in Trouw, “Ministers moeten toch ergens kunnen zeggen dat ze gek worden van die Heilige Omtzigt.” (Ministers should still be able to say somewhere that they’re going crazy because of Saint Omtzigt”).Can’t politicians or ministers gossip about someone they feel is a ticking time bomb or a volcano waiting to explode? While Keizer explains that it’s absolutely human to gossip, the biggest problem is getting caught.
Just google “getting caught gossiping” and you will see that the situation happens a lot. Many employees have lost their jobs because of it.
For example, Cathy, (21), used to work in the restaurant of a large department store in Ireland. She recalls how one of her colleagues had been told off by her boss for not working very hard. “That made her really angry,” Cathy explains. “So later on, she started ranting to me, saying ‘ugh I hate that manager’ but what she didn’t know was that the manager was walking by behind her. I was like ‘f***, we’re screwed’. But, luckily, she was the one talking, not me. Two months later the manager approached my colleague, and she said something like ‘I’m so sorry I’m not renewing your contract.’” Cathy is certain it was because her manager had overheard her gossip.
In a column in the Canadian paper The Globe and Mail where readers share their experiences of having been caught gossiping, one man recounts: “My boss wants to fire me because I commented on his big teeth and bad breath. One specific employee told the boss that I was the main contributor to the gossip, and he’s had it in for me ever since.”
“What should I do?” the reader then asks.
Of course, the main advice to people who find themselves in such sticky situations, is to first of all, to stay clear of gossip altogether. But as the author notes, “The offices and factory floors would be pretty empty in Canada if employees were routinely fired for gossiping about their bosses.”
Most experts, however, do agree that gossip can sink a career. Your boss may not explicitly tell you why you are let go, but you wouldn’t be too far off to assume that it was because she caught you gossiping.
And in the current work setting where people gossip more and more online and via group chats such as WhatsApp, the risk of getting caught is even greater as conversations can be recorded and messages screen shot.
What to do when you’re caught
If you are caught, don’t deny it or lie –especially if the gossip is in writing. Mark Rutte saw that the consequences of lying were even worse than getting caught.
Most experts agree that the best strategy is to own it. “Like mold in the basement, the damage caused by being linked to gossip continues to grow if left unchecked,” Michael Stern (an expert on workplace culture) explains. “If you know you’ve been caught, don’t pretend you weren’t. You need to have a face-to-face talk with the other person and attempt to put the comments in context and apologize if necessary.
However, according to Jane Burnett, it’s best not to do it too quickly, as the apology may come across as insincere: it will look like you are more sorry for getting caught. Wait a bit, then promise the third party that this will never happen again, and that you will handle such situations differently in the future.
Is this strategy sound? Recently, gossip emerging from Dutch party D66 came out into the open: that, apparently, politician and informant Johan Remkes has a drinking problem. Sigrid Kaag, the leader of Dutch party D66, immediately took responsibility and came clean. “The words have been withdrawn immediately,” she claimed at the start of a parliamentary session. However, the damage was done and she and her party still came under fire. Certain politicians called them ‘cowards’ and described the gossip as ‘sad talks.’ “This says something about the way you look at politics. Is this your new leadership?” SP party chairman Lilian Marijnissen asked Kaag.
The moral of the story? Don’t get caught!