“There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” —Oscar Wilde
As most of us know, gossip is unavoidable. Whether it takes the form of blatantly bad-mouthing an acquaintance, co-worker, or friend, or the subtler variety of passive-aggressive insult like, “Has Tom gained weight?” People seem to take an almost perverse pleasure in talking about others. As most of us also know, rarely is this talk positive.
It is thought that gossip played a role in the development of intelligence and social skills in humans. Today, researchers recognize countless purposes for the pastime. For one, gossip preserves a sense of social normalcy. If you fall out of line of certain social standards, you can expect to be gossiped about, potentially leading to a sense of shame and the desire to be invited back in to a social circle.
While the negative aspects of gossip are well-documented, the reasons for not gossiping may be just as suspect. For example, you may believe that you are better than the gossipers, deriving a sense of superiority from it. This silent smugness can be just as negative as the jabs hurled by the loudest rumormongers. One can see the irony in the following statement: “I’ll tell you, Gary sure likes to gossip, doesn’t he?” You may be afraid of speaking critically of others, expressing any kind of disfavor in fear that it makes you look like a complainer, when in fact vocalizing dissent might be a way of being honest about what you’re thinking or feeling. See our article on assertiveness.
The bottom line is: no one is above gossip. But if too much of your time is spent doing it, it might be worth reflecting on why. Is your own life not interesting enough? Is it missing a sense of adventure that is lived vicariously through the dramatic exploits of others? Are you gossiping because the alternative—being assertive with people about your feelings and wishes—is too scary? The answers to these questions could help you understand the purpose gossip serves for you and help you take proactive steps to address the real problems and communicate more effectively.
The Role of the Scapegoat
In most gossip situations, there is a person who serves as the designated scapegoat for the hostile feelings of the main group. For some groups the scapegoat is simply a person who is not present, while other groups designate members who routinely serve this function. If the scapegoat tires of their role as the recipient of negative gossip or criticism, they may abandon it. The void will be filled by a new, unsuspecting scapegoat.
How is a scapegoat selected?
Scapegoats are selected not by some conscious, formal process, but typically through some distinguishing trait they have. For example, in a chess club predominately attended by elderly members, we can see how the presence of a twenty-year-old might create a sense of “otherness” or difference, and the young member finds themselves the butt of jokes. Most young people have been teased by an older person at one time or another for being “too young” to get a certain reference. Likewise, a group of youngsters might act the same way toward the lone older person in their midst. In a group where someone stands out for one reason or another, they may be chastised about the thing that makes them different.
Gossip can occur in response to collective envy—that is, gossipers may criticize a quality they wish they had but do not want to admit. “Karen is so selfish. She doesn’t hang out with us on the weekends anymore.” Maybe Karen is actually someone who sticks to her guns and is not peer-pressured into going along with the group, choosing instead to spend her time cultivating her individual interests. These qualities might be used against her in a gossip scenario and recast as selfishness. It is possible that some, if not all, of these group members are envious of Karen’s autonomy, and wish the group did not have such a strong pull on them. Admitting that they have doubts about their own place in the group, partially driven by a fear they might be excluded or gossiped about like Karen, could prompt them to affirm their loyalty to the group, and continue expressing hostility toward Karen through gossip.
While envy or jealousy is a hard emotion to admit to, it is vital to do so as it helps us become aware of what we are actually seeking ourselves. We are reminded of the old fable of the hungry fox and the sour grapes:
“Driven by hunger, a fox tried to reach some grapes hanging high on the vine but was unable to, although he leaped with all his strength. As he went away, the fox remarked ‘Oh, you aren’t even ripe yet! I don’t need any sour grapes.’”
When gossip is driven by envy, we are wise to consider whether there is something about the person being gossiped about that we actually admire or envy, and wish we had in our own lives. By all rights, keep gossiping, but don’t miss out on an opportunity to admit to yourself what is lacking in your life so that you can address it instead of begrudging the success of others.
Toward a More Productive Workplace
Recognizing that entirely eliminating gossip is unrealistic—and in some ways counterproductive—we should strive to understand why we gossip, the purpose it serves, and the potential costs of doing it.
Does talking about an absent third party make us feel more connected to the people that we are with in the present? If so, might we be avoiding other ways of fostering social bonds with these people, like sharing information about ourselves and our own lives, expressing our frustrations and desires?
The problem is that gossip can communicate to others that you are not someone to be trusted, that you make a habit of airing others’ dirty laundry. One study found that regardless of whether the gossip itself was positive or negative, people perceive the act of gossiping as negative. Even speaking highly of others while they are not around can be seen as lacking social grace.
A study conducted on employees of a Chinese company found that negative workplace gossip undermined proactive work behaviors and was associated with emotional exhaustion. This would indicate that negative gossip might have a toxic effect on general workplace culture. However, studies like these cannot prove whether gossip creates a toxic culture or if the culture is already toxic, and therefore people are more likely to gossip.
The research on gossip is far from conclusive. One study found that the hormone oxytocin is released during gossip. Oxytocin plays a role in relational bonding and trust, suggesting that gossip serves a prosocial purpose.
Psychologists at UC Berkeley found that gossip reduced stress and promoted positivity in situations where the gossip served to warn others about dishonest or untrustworthy people. It appears that not all gossip is created equal, and some forms may be helpful in certain situations.
So rather than stop gossiping completely—you likely won’t be successful anyway—you might seek to better understand how and why you gossip. Does it tend to be directed at people about whom you are envious? Are you actually angry at the person but do not feel that you can safely express that, so it turns into criticism of them behind their back? Is your life lacking flavor in a fundamental way that comes out in a preoccupation with the more exciting—or even sordid—lives of others? Or does gossip help you feel more connected to the people you are with, allowing for laughter and a sense of group harmony? In the end, gossip may not be a problem per se, but the sign of a problem.
Envisioning a workplace where employees work collaboratively and cheerfully while joining hands and singing kumbaya may be overly Pollyanna. However, the other extreme is a workplace teeming with negativity, where coalitions and drama distract people from performing effectively, and may even impact their mental health. Promoting a culture of honesty, openness and fairness from the top down sets the stage for a more productive workplace. A healthy workplace, then, is not one where gossip is nonexistent. It is one where gossip is just one way—but not the only way—to communicate.
At A and H Insurance, we value a culture of openness and emphasize communication. While no workplace is perfect in cultivating these objectives, our team strives to be direct with each other and with our clients. A and H Insurance’s mission, encapsulated in our “Personal Promise,” is to treat people as if they are family.
Steven Dente is the Communications Director for A and H Insurance.