A little while ago, Japke-d. Bouma and I were interviewed by journalist Hanneke Mijnster (for Eva Jinek’s online platform). Her article, Je mag dit niet doorvertellen, maar… de zin en onzin van roddelen op werk, describes the pros and cons of gossiping at work, and gives tips on how to gossip strategically.

When the article was posted on LinkedIn and on Instagram, many of the readers’ reactions astonished me (although I certainly shouldn’t have been surprised, given the horrible reputation gossip has).

 “Gossip contributes to a sick working atmosphere. I hate it,” says one. “Gossiping is so exhausting. There are so many more fun things to keep you busy,” writes another. On Instagram the tone tends to be even nastier. “Yuck, gossip is sneaky. Very unethical to normalize this.” “Gossip is terrible. You get sucked in by this shit.”

Many of the critics on both platforms claim that they never gossip and are disgusted by those who do. “It’s better to communicate with someone than to communicate about someone,” another reader recommends. (A very Dutch reaction, I can say).

I find it a shame that there is such a taboo surrounding gossip. For one, gossip is a part of human nature. It’s in our genes. In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari claims that it is our ability to gossip that distinguishes us from other animals, and has allowed us to survive and thrive over time. And today, although the challenges have changed, working in organizations very often requires similar coping skills.

Of course, it would be wonderful to have a workplace so transparent and open, where all employees get along perfectly, and have no trouble discussing problems with each other. But this is utopic!

To make matters worse, gossip is often lumped with all other forms imaginable of bad behavior. A recent study about the work environment of the Dutch Parliament, for example, claims that many staffers suffer from inappropriate behavior. “It concerns matters such as gossip, derogatory remarks, denigration, discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment…”.

To be clear, I definitely do not condone bullying, discrimination and spreading lies. In my book, Have I Got Dirt for You, I show that indeed, gossip can be used in destructive ways.  If you gossip to undermine a colleague to get ahead, or to promote a hidden agenda, of course, you are behaving badly.

But there are also constructive ways to use gossip. If you gossip with good intentions, to warn others or to learn about the corporate culture, you are gossiping well, and will most likely be appreciated by your colleagues.

It’s important to make the distinction between the various forms of behavior that are lumped with gossip. By dismissing it as morally reprehensible, we are missing out on opportunities to understand and make use of an important communication tool. 

Yet, I have the feeling that there’s something a lot darker behind the negative comments. The fact that Japke-d. Bouma changed her mind radically about gossip speaks volumes. A while back, she claimed that without gossip at work, “everyone would die of boredom,” but now, some years later, she says “she has seen the destructive effects of gossip first hand.” (Though what she describes is about slander and spreading lies).  Indeed, spreading lies at work is a lot more prevalent than we could imagine.

In her book The Truth about Lies in the Workplace, Carol Kinsey Goman says: “I began by thinking that lying in the workplace was an aberration. Instead I found that lying was created by evolution and driven by social necessity – and that we couldn’t operate in a business environment  (or any other environment) without some forms of it. I thought that I could divide the workplace into categories – the deceitful ‘them’ and the truthful ‘us’ – but found that there is no such clear-cut distinction.”

Kinsey Goman claims that while there are many people who work in organizations with ethical and trustworthy bosses and co-workers, a majority does not. “67 percent of respondents said that they have lost confidence in the truthfulness of their senior leaders, 53 percent admitted they don’t trust their managers. And 51 percent believed that their co-workers regularly lied.”  

The author explains that not all lies are equally bad. Hasn’t nearly everyone reverted to the small white lie at one point, to spare the feelings of a colleague?

So…  if you claim that you never gossip, is this also not a lie?

Dominique Darmon has been a senior lecturer at The Hague University for Applied Sciences since 2012. She is the award winning author of "Have I Got Dirt for You: Using Office Gossip to Your Advantage" and "Roddel je naar de top: De ultieme kantoorgids." She teaches international communication management and is a member of the Research Group Change Management at the university. 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. 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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