Our Gender, Ourselves

The changing American family

Navigating the Perils of Office Gossip

Being cautious with gossip is common sense.

It is almost certain that deep in our past, a group of Mesolithic humans stood around a fresh kill, talking about someone who wasn’t holding up his end of the hunting and gathering

Jump ahead 15,000 years, and we’re still at it. Office gossip is alive, flowing freely and – depending on your point of view – as natural as casual conversation or a pathogen infecting morale, productivity and even health.

On the dark side of the view of gossip, it may be a special problem for women –its most able practitioners and perhaps its most vulnerable targets.

In my work studying women in the workplace, I met Amy, creative director at a Chicago magazine publisher. She has seen that dark side of office chatter, and understands the divide between harmless and horrible.

She had a coworker her age: both single, both ambitious, both sharing a love of the Chicago Bulls. They became close, sharing secrets over what she now says were probably too many glasses of wine.

When she found out that co-worker shared some of those secrets with others in the office, she was crushed. Also mortified.

She says now that she has a firm rule. No matter how friendly someone is in the office; no matter how open they are about their own life:  trust no one; share nothing and never let your personal world and work world collide.

Being cautious with gossip is common sense, but the lure of being in the loop is seductive. Stepping out of that loop is a difficult call because gossip is the standard currency of human connection. A research team from at the University of Amsterdam found that 90 percent of total office conversation qualifies as gossip. Research at the Georgia Institute of Technology concluded that gossip makes up 15 percent of office e-mail.

Why do we do it? Perhaps a better question: why do we love it?

Anthropologists say that throughout human history, gossip as been a way to bond with others – even a tool to isolate those who aren’t supporting the group.

There is also the powerful drive humans have to know about other lives. It’s a fascination – seasoned liberally with schadenfreude -- behind a welter of magazines, television programs and magazines that have made celebrity gossip more than a $3 billion industry. “Your life may be more glamorous than mine. But I’m not a shoplifter.”

Some argue that, in the office, it serves a useful purpose. Northeastern University professor Dr. Jack Levin, author of Gossip: The Inside Scoop, says it can be good for our emotional health. He makes a distinction for the weapons-grade rumor-mongering that destroys reputations. But, in general, he believes gossip is a force that ties together social and business networks. Others say it’s a way to see behind the curtain of employer pronouncements.

The weight of both research and the experiences of those who have been its targets, however, says clearly that gossip can hurt relationships, create a climate of fear and resentment, all of which feeds stress like humid air feeds a storm. And stress, multiple studies show, is one of the leading causes of a host of workplace issues – from a decline in productivity to a rise in illness and absenteeism.

The question of whether women gossip more than men, and suffer more accordingly, immediately trips over  a familiar kind of double standard. What is called gossip for women; for men is just shooting the breeze.

Still, differences in how men and women communicate would suggest that the impact of gossip is uneven.

Studies show women use far more words during the day than men do. And woman-to-woman, those words tend to be personal. The bartering of intimacies – I share-you share – is the adhesive of female friendship. While women bond over feelings, men bond over activities – with intimacy peaking at “try shortening your back-swing.” 

It’s no surprise then that this difference in communication styles translates to a difference in how men and women gossip. For women, it tends to be personal: “I can’t believe how she interrupts people at meetings.” For men, gossip is more likely to be about status: “Did you hear Ted bought a Mercedes?”

The darkest side of gossip emerges when it becomes the weapon of choice for women at war – whether it’s equal rivals fighting for a position, or a senior executive protecting her territory.

Janet, a pharmaceutical rep found herself in an internecine gossip war with another rep : “I still can’t believe how bad it got. Or even how we got there. It’s like we were forming rival street gangs. We screwed up the entire office. When we ran out of ammunition, we just started telling lies.”

Most employers understand the disruption of workplace gossip. But there is little they can do beyond encouraging open communications. There are hints of no-gossip policies and no-gossip zones, with sporadic small examples. But bans quickly run into problems: free speech, workplace rights and the nightmare prospect of figuring out what was said to whom, and whether it was malicious.

They also know it’s a fact of life. Where there are groups, there will be gossip. It’s simply how we’re wired. But in the workplace, what’s natural can also be harmful; to morale, to productivity and to careers

There is no shortage of carrier guidance on the subject of office gossip – ranging from how to avoid it to how to use it. But most workplace experts  come down on the side of avoidance.

The best practice is to “Merandize” yourself: Simply assume that anything you say can and will come back to haunt you.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and their children.

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