There are many things we might miss about working in the office: free coffee, free air conditioning, an excuse to wear something other than sweatpants.
But the thing we might miss the most is other people – and our conversations with them. Specifically, how Mike’s partner just had another baby, how the fridge is filled with Jane’s moldy old lunches, that the IT help desk is as slow as ever and how the boss gave Mark and not Jean that pay rise. In other words: gossip.
While some gossip can be petty and unprofessional, other types of gossiping can be fun, normal, even healthy and productive. Experts say that talking about others behind their backs doesn’t have to be a guilty office pastime – it can be a useful tool to navigate the workplace and learn important information.
Gossip’s surprising utility
“I think, generally, gossip is a good thing,” says Elena Martinescu, a research associate at Vrije Universitetit Amsterdam, who’s extensively studied the psychology of gossiping. “According to evolutionary theory, humans have developed gossip in order to facilitate co-operation in a group.”
By talking about other people, we can learn whom to collaborate with and whom to stay away from, something that helps a group work better together. This ingrained behaviour translates to the modern workplace, she says, “where it is equally important to be aware of which colleagues one can trust and who one should be careful with”.
Some gossip can be fun, normal, healthy... and even productive (Credit: Getty Images)
Matthew Feinberg, a professor of management at the University of Toronto, who’s also studied gossip, points out that there are different types of gossip. “When gossip is just ‘talking trash’ – commenting on someone's appearance for example – that serves no positive purpose, and therefore is negative, damaging and problematic.” But research shows that most gossip is pretty benign.
A 2019 study, for example, showed that when researchers recorded conversations of around 500 participants, the vast majority – more than three-quarters – of the conversations weren’t positive or negative, but neutral. It could be banal information travelling through the grapevine, like ‘I heard Mary’s daughter is majoring in marketing’ or ‘Pete is on holiday in Cornwall’. So even though the same study showed that we gossip a lot – an average of 52 minutes a day, in fact – the content is largely not as salacious as we assume.
“I think the biggest misconception is that gossip is always this negative cattiness – talking badly about somebody behind their backs. But surveys suggest that the primary reason people do it is because they really just want to make sense of their environment,” says Shannon Taylor, a professor of management at the University of Central Florida, US, who studies workplace dynamics.
Gossip can “validate our emotions” and help us figure out where other people stand on things, he says, and that gossip helps us make sure if the way we’re “perceiving the world in the same way as other colleagues and coworkers receive it. It’s really about information gathering.” So, if someone at work says something like “Ralph has been taking a lot of sick leave recently,” it could open the door for others to share their judgments and evaluations – that maybe Ralph’s rampant sick leave could account for his poor job performance, for example. It can help you gauge how much sick leave is regarded as “appropriate” among your colleagues (regardless of formal policy) as well as who’s empathetic or mean towards Ralph.
We gossip a lot – an average of 52 minutes a day, in fact – but the content is largely not as salacious as we assume
“By asking another colleague, ‘Can you believe Employee X has taken so many sick days?’, the gossiping employee is trying to judge or evaluate from the gossip recipient’s reaction whether X’s behaviour is acceptable or not,” says Taylor.
Gossip isn’t just about information-gathering, however. Hearing gossip about colleagues can also make us more self-reflective, while being the subject of gossip can cause people to change their behaviour.
In a 2014 study, Martinescu and her colleagues asked participants to fill in questionnaires about incidents that involved hearing both negative and flattering gossip about others. The researchers found that while negative gossip made the listener feel superior to the person being gossiped about, thus boosting self-esteem, it also made the listener feel more vulnerable to similar treatment. Meanwhile, listening to flattering gossip gave listeners ideas about how to improve themselves, so they could be more like the person being gossiped about.
In a similar vein, Feinberg says one of the pluses of office gossip is “keeping selfish and immoral individuals in check”. In a 2014 study, he and his team found that “individuals who behaved selfishly or immorally were much more likely to have people gossip about them so that everyone else in the larger group knew about their behaviour”, he says. “As a result, recipients of this gossip were more likely to avoid interacting with them; the recipients often ostracised them.”
Later, they found that “those who got ostracised started to change their ways in order to be re-accepted into the group, and [also that] in general, people became more co-operative with one another – presumably because they didn't want to get ostracised in the first place”.
Without water-cooler chats, we've found ways to move our gossip to other online channels as we've been working remotely (Credit: Getty Images)
Fueled by uncertainty
Gossip – a practice a 2017 paper called “an essential part of any working process” – may be particularly relevant right now as a defense mechanism we’re using to navigate anxiety during the pandemic.
Although we may not be gathered around a physical water cooler to whisper scandalous hearsay to one another, we have DMs and Slack as alternative remote-work channels. “Gossip is driven a lot by uncertainty,” says Taylor. “I would not be surprised at all if we see higher levels of gossip in the workplace now than we did before Covid. With all of these uncertainties, we’re trying to sort out what other people are thinking and what other people are doing.”
That means that right now, gossip could be about figuring out if your colleagues are in the market for a new job at a place that will allow more flexible work-from-home arrangements, or comparing notes with fellow parents about pandemic-era childcare woes. In doing this, you’re trying to ascertain what information is available amid rapidly changing circumstances as well as who’s in the same boat as you.
Sometimes, though, gossiping is just unbridled catharsis about people or structures you dislike. Maybe it’s the tyrannical boss who leads by strong-arming, or the team who work passive-aggressively slowly. Yet this gossip can still provide a network of observations and warnings that provide an informal infrastructure of support outside traditional workplace channels like HR.
“Gossip can warn people about dangerous others, and it also helps build social bonds between people who gossip,” says Martinescu. “Over time, gossip might help people realise they have shared values and experiences, which can help bring them closer.”
Given gossip has existed since long before the pandemic, survived during it and will live forever after it, we shouldn’t feel too guilty about our periodic need to discuss other people’s lives. Doing so can serve practical, positive purposes – as long as it’s not malicious.