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Friday, August 3, 2012

Gossip Is Good For You–And I Loved It!

Apparently 60 percent of our conversations are spent on gossip, and according to researchers, gossip is good for you.  It helps us bond with our friends – talking, listening, sharing secrets and stories bonds us together and helps us form friendship; and it keeps us in line – no one wants to be the one being negatively gossiped about, so we are careful to adhere to social norms. 

Virtually all of us frequently find ourselves producing, hearing, or otherwise participating in evaluative comments about someone who is not present in the conversation. It is often valuable (and sometimes unavoidable) to be part of such communications. To function efficiently in a complex social environment, humans require information about those around them. But social interconnections are complex, and it is impossible to be present at many primary exchanges to absorb this kind of information directly. Thus, many people are eager to pick it up through an intermediary, whether or not they have the luxury and patience to confirm it later either directly or indirectly. This phenomenon, of course, is called gossip. It is an important
social behavior that nearly everyone experiences, contributes to, and presumably intuitively understands.  (Eric K. Foster University of Pennsylvania, Research on Gossip 2004)

Foster goes on to cite some of the additional values of gossip, summarized here:

Information: Gossip is a good way of getting to the heart of the matter – e.g., the real reasons why senior management has taken a certain decision.  While they would like us to believe that they have reached it in an orderly, logical, and objective manner, we all know that it is usually the result of infighting, turf wars, and personality conflicts.  Gossip helps to give us the real dope on what is going down in our organization.  On a personal level, it helps to provide information on why a neighbor really sold his house; why his kids went to a particular school; why the police visited his house.  While much of the information may be incorrect, it provides a unique channel for vetting options that ordinarily would not be aired.

Entertainment: What could be a more glorious, naughty, and perfectly delightful way to spend fifteen minutes than to speculate on George’s sexual preferences, or dissing Mary’s cheesy wedding; or being totally bitchy about Amanda’s clothes?

Friendship: One might initiate a professional friendship with a colleague by dropping by his office and talking about the latest overhead accounts; but it is far better and easier and more fun to ask him what he thinks about Betsy’s decision to reorganize the division.  Since everyone is interested in gossip, it is the certified, guaranteed glue to fix a beginning friendship. Among friends, the dinner table discussions about moral philosophy are usually put aside over the salad course to talk about who is fucking whom.  Of course this is a simplistic way of putting it, and Foster, forever the academic adds:

The friendship or intimacy function of gossiping refers both to dyadic interchanges and to the way in which gossip brings groups together
through the sharing of norms, thereby establishing boundaries to distinguish insiders from outsiders. What begins as a trusted exchange in
private becomes at the group level the knowledge, norm, and trust boundaries of tribes, clans, and cultures.

This reference to norms comes up repeatedly in gossip research.  Although gossip may have a random nature to it – the topic raised or the person pilloried may vary – it has the purpose of establishing a greater coalescence of the gossiping group by establishing a common reference to normative values.  If Joan grimaces disapprovingly at comments about the cheesy wedding, we suspect that the really liked it, and will be asked to turn in her membership card to our club. 

Influence: This builds on the above and suggests that gossip is a great way of policing prevalent norms:

Establishing friendship at the dyadic or group level is closely related to boundary enforcement and gossip’s influence function, widely discussed
by gossip writers. As a means of corralling (or expelling) the wayward and eccentric, gossip is acknowledged to be an efficient social mechanism. The aim of gossip could be either to reform or to stigmatize the sinner. Gossip is also a kind of informal policing device for controlling free riders and social cheats. In fact, these authors posit that, evolutionarily, this is the most important function of language in general and gossip in particular. (Foster, op.cit.)

Dynamic utility and guilt.  In layman’s terms, this is ‘Letting off steam’: Gossip is a good way of venting frustrations; and although ad hominem attacks are protected within the context of gossip (i.e. no official record of them, gossip is never considered serious), they can be effective in stirring up trouble, often just what the frustrated employee wants:

A number of writers have used the phrase “letting off steam” as a purpose of gossip. This function implies a cathartic release from anger, guilt, anxiety, or some other unpleasant internal state and a return to a balanced state of repose. (Foster, op.cit.)

Gossip, argues Foster may not only have a practical contemporary purpose, but may in fact be related to evolutionary utility:

The field of evolutionary biology provides a unique perspective on the social functions of gossip, predictably reducing them to one critical function: survival. [Some researchers have] suggested that gossip was selected for among our ancestors because it provided information necessary for survival. News and evaluations about “relatives, rivals, mates and potential mates, offspring, partners in social exchange, and the very high-ranking” would be of particular interest, as would “control over resources, sexual activities,
births and deaths, current alliances/friendships and political involvements, health, and reputation about reliability as a partner in social exchange”

In an recent article in the Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/02/office-nurturing-vipers-workplace-sabotage Guy Browning says “Watch out! And beware of office vipers”; and writes about gossip strategies.  That is, rather than the loose, informal, socially energizing activity that it usually is, gossip should be used productively:

Everybody in the office needs to know how to deal with the patterns of informal communication, i.e gossip, and the rule here is that you've got to be in it to win it. Unless you have multiple contacts and regular interaction (in other words going to the pub with your workmates), you're likely to be outside the undercurrents of information that make every company tick.

At the same time, the competitive workplace has become a dangerous place to play these games:

Despite organizations spending huge budgets on culture change programs specifically designed to encourage nurturing, supportive behavior valuing everyone's unique contribution, it's still a nest of vipers out there. The difference is that people will now sabotage your career in a supportive, nurturing way which values your contribution, whereas in the good old days they would have thrown your typewriter out of the window.

Office politics were about networking long before the advent of social media. Facebook, however, is different from the real world in that there isn't a "can't stand" button. That would certainly spice the whole thing up. Sadly this button is in constant use in the workplace. Studies from less reputable sources than the University of British Columbia (me) have shown that half of all meetings and three-quarters of all business lunches are taken up with the identification, dissection and annihilation of co-workers.

Being a good strategic gossiper requires well-developed, honed, and practiced skills; a sharp perception, a social adeptness, and an almost innate sense of social risk.  The best gossipers rise in the organization because they know exactly when to jump on the annihilation bandwagon (they are never the initiators and can differentiate between a colleague already on the way down and one who is on the precipice and worth attacking), how to curry favor with those who have authority (via gossip, of course, sharing light, familiar stories about children and community), how to select influential co-workers (through gossip which will inform about intelligence, quickness, versatility, and commitment). 

The trick is to adhere to gaming theory – play your cards at exactly the right moment and position yourself always to play the last card – and to keep yourself as neutral as possible.  In gossip sessions you have to contribute, but if you know your group, understand your purpose and goals, you will know how to release only the least information to achieve the highest rewards.

Browning suggests that playing the gossip network requires a 24/7 dedication:

Everybody in the office needs to know how to deal with the patterns of informal communication, ie gossip, and the rule here is that you've got to be in it to win it. Unless you have multiple contacts and regular interaction (in other words going to the bar with your co-workers), you're likely to be outside the undercurrents of information that make every company tick.

At the other end of the spectrum are the non-gossipers.  They will never get ahead, either by becoming a trusted member of more and more collegial gossip groups or by currying favor with those in power through gossip; but they will be the ultimate survivors in office reorganizations.  They may not win the prizes of the best jobs and offices, but will be sure to have a job when the dust clears.

I worked at the World Bank during one of its famous reorganizations.  It was very hard not to gossip about who was going to do what to whom; and although most of us knew that it was not at all wise to share our opinions openly, we did it anyway.  Except our Third World colleagues who had been through far worse.  They had emerged unscathed from palace coups, revolutions, armed insurrections, ethnic and tribal violence, bureaucratic intrigues, and corrupt administrations and had landed a cushy job at the Bank.  They had come out of these nasty national encounters because they had kept their heads down and their mouths shut, making only the slightest and most calculating moves. 

Here at the World Bank, however, where the politics were less fraught with danger, and where most of the professionals were naïve players in an adult game, all you had to do to survive was to duck and cover and let the Americans run off at the mouth and sink themselves.  The Ethiopians, Nigerians, Bangladeshis, and Haitians didn’t want to become Division Chief or Director.  They only wanted to keep their high-paying, big-time benefits job and return to their benighted countries wealthy.

I love gossip just like the next person, and admit to playing my own games under Foster’s category of Dynamic Utility and Guilt.  It was fun to test the gossip circuits within the organization by floating a slightly implausible but tantalizing rumor and tracking its progress through the Region, Budget and Accounting, Field Operations, Communications, and Senior Management.  It was amazing how much staying power such rumors had.  I don’t think many of my colleagues really believed the slightly scurrilous, off-handed comment about Mr. X, but since many said, “On the other hand, it could be true” off it went through work groups, divisions, departments, and the boardroom. 

I was sure that in every Team Meeting that I ran, we gossiped.  It was the most important item on the agenda, and if I wasn’t careful, we would run over time.  Once I got to know my teammates, and they could trust me (as a much older man I could get away with a lot more than a young one in terms of personal comments or inquiries), I could encourage gossip that covered the waterfront.

A close friend who knew me well said “It’s just your playground, isn’t it?”.  She loved me, so said this kindly, but she also let me know that for a young person in her position, it was more of a battleground.

In any case, I gossiped in all of Foster’s categories but one – for laughs, for information, for friendship, and for ‘dynamic utility’.  I cared less about influence, squeezing out the bad seed or ugly duckling, making my strategic way up the ladder.  I had a great time.

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