in defense of gossip

| 9 Comments

My friend Weez has been writing about gossip this week (here, , here, and here) and in response, she's gotten some relatively predictable comments about gossip as a "bad" thing--and the people who indulge in it as "those kind of people."

So, as an inveterate workplace gossip, I felt some need to come to my own defense. And as a former research librarian, I turned immediately to "the literature." I wasn't surprised to find that gossip is a topic that's of great interest to researchers in a number of fields--sociology, psychology, anthropology, and organizational behavior.

(Most of what I found was in proprietary journal databases, rather than freely available on the web, so all I can do is cite and quote, rather than linking.)

The most interesting (to me) and accessible piece was a 1993 article entitled "News from behind my hand: Gossip in organizations," written by Mike Noon and Rick Delbridge, and published in Organization Studies.

Early in the article, Noon and Delbridge quote a 1961 article by J. Loudon entitled "Kinship and crisis in south Wales." (British Journal of Sociology 12: 333-350):

Gossip is undoubtedly the most important channel for constant reaffirmation of shared values about behaviour. Those who cannot join in gossip about their neighbours, friends and relatives...soon find themselves excluded from conversations at local gatherings.

That resonated with my sense of the role of gossip in the organizations I've been in--that in large part, it's about reaffirmation and development of shared values.

The bulk of the article's argument, however, was even more on target (probably since it was focused on "office" gossip). Here are some portions, interspersed with my comments.

For the individual, gossip can be a powerful tool. It provides a person with the opportunity to pass on information about key members of an organization, with the potential to influence opinions and attitudes. One's own position may be enhanced because one is seen as a gate-keeper of 'important' information, and because the gossip might seek to lower the prestige and standing of the 'victim' in relation to oneself as gossiper. In this sense, gossip may be related to careerism within organizations; gossip is a central feature of networking as one seeks self-promotion, information control and the denigration of competitors.

Yeah, that's probably part of it, much as I hate to admit it. This would be the part of my own gossiping behavior that I'm least proud of. I'd like to think that the power it generates is used for good, not for evil...and I'm relatively certain that many of my colleagues, for whom I've put that power to work, would agree. And my rationalization is that if I don't do it, someone with far less admirable goals and motivations will fill the power vacuum.

Alternatively, gossip might be the only means of influence available for those excluded from the formal power structure within the organization. Kanter (1977) notes the important 'power' positions of secretaries because of their access to information, which had the effect of opening up channels of communication across the organization which were otherwise closed. Moore (1962) suggests that the circumstance of knowledge without formal power creates a 'shadow' organization through which individuals can exert influence. This might undermine the formal hierarchy by denigrating those in positions of authority. Alternatively, it could provide social mobility/influence for individuals who might otherwise direct their energies to confronting and challenging the formal hierarchy, thus the structures of power are preserved, whilst the personnel is in a state of flux. Gossip can therefore help to perpetuate the organization by protecting it from direct challenge and attack.

Ah. Now, that sounds more like what's going on. Few of my colleagues would deny that we have both a formal hierarchy and a shadow organization, and that often more good is done by and with the latter than the former. Gossip, it seems, is the power tool of the untenured. I like that. :)

And finally...

More fundamentally for the individual, gossip can be fun. As with humour, gossip gives an escape from the monotonous drudgery many workers experience for hours on end during the working day. Whilst the effects of such 'lightening' factors as humour and gossip can be over-stated, so too can they be under-emphasized. As aspects of 'play', they may provide 'release' both from routine or stress. Elimination of gossip, were it possible, may therefore not only make employees' lives more boring, but might also give them greater opportunity to ponder the futility and overarching tedium they are often obliged to endure in their work tasks.

Now we're talkin' Yes, yes and yes!

So, yes, I'm a gossip. An unrepentant one, at that. But Weez is still my best friend, so clearly that characteric's not a deal-breaker. I'm glad. :)

9 Comments

Sounds rather like blogging, doesn't it?

Still your friend and still occassionally ickened by the whole thing.

There is that (my) cultural divide that's smack dab contrary to the functionality of gossip- the notion that one doesn't say bad things.

Living with gossip, requires one have filters and some discretion. Now, with a clear understanding that I have no bullshit meter (this a well recognized fact among my friends), combined with a great respect for many of my colleagues, gossip can be devastating. I am- I know, naive in this way.

The onus is upon me to not make a pariah of myself, and at the same time develop the proper callousness necessary to swim in occassionally acidic waters.

Did you run across Pat Spacks's book _Gossip_ (early 1990's sometime, I think), which also makes a brief for its value? Makes some of the same points you mention above (I think--it's down in my basement but I haven't read it in years).

Hi there,

Over at KnowledgeBoard, we had a bit of conversation going on about gossiping. To me gossiping is an important way to 'seed' KM-ideas in our organisation.

http://www.knowledgeboard.com/cgi-bin/item.cgi?id=92556

regards,

Is it still gossiping when you only say sympathising or nice things about other people - behind their backs?

Gossip has now become this great networking tool which allows the collective to form an opinion! It depends who is doing the gossiping, if it is the powerless this seems a totally acceptable way to behave. However, perhaps there is no need to always accept the powerless position..... my exasperation with gossip is that fundamentally i wish i had more options, and I resent the necessity of this game.. but perhaps i should just lighten up!

One of my PhD cohort is doing research on the social roles of deception, including gossip, although gossip seems to fall in the realm of "white lies" or "untruths". Gossip, then, is seen to be akin to rumour, which also serves as a social bonding practice. Of course, it only serves to bond some, as others are excluded by virtue of the subject of gossip. In other words, gossip is always already about inclusion and exclusion.

Personally, I really dislike gossip when it shares something in common with hypocrisy. My mother taught me as a child never to say anything about someone that you are not prepared to say to their face and suffer the consequences. (And so Jill, I wouldn't include your scenario as gossip.)

I think there can be something quite unpleasant about the power relations created and perpetuated through gossip, and it's always kind of rubbed me the wrong way that gossiping is often considered a feminine trait ...

Unless you want me to, I won't repost what I've posted on Weez's blog. It's posted, at length, there and I'd rather have people visit her blog and introduce themselves to her if they don't already know her.

Needless to say, we don't agree.

I find gossip to be power-based and lacking in redeeming qualities.

I'd ask that the next time you're office gossiping, think about what I wrote and see if it applies. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't.

And, hopefully my thoughts are not included in your statement:

"relatively predictable comments about gossip as a 'bad' thing´┐Żand the people who indulge in it as 'those kind of people.'"

I mean, that's pretty dismissive. I'm happy to agree to disagree, just don't invalidate me because of what I say.

(I mean, I know my blog is just on LiveJournal, but, as adults, can't we work past such stigmas?) :-)

...

Yes, I love a good gossip.

However, some sorts of gossip should never be heard by their subjects, which is exactly what happened to me a couple of months ago.

Extremely damaging and amazing it was, and it made my blood run cold to think people could suspect me of that. For if the rumour had been true, I would have been guilty of malicious harassment and stalking.

I acted fast and went to the woman who had peddled the lie, (thankfully I had a friend who alterted me to this) and it was very interesting to see how the pedlar and some others went into denial. Being caught "at it" isn't fun.

The annoying thing is, I just don't have the heart to invent one, nor any elements with which to cobble together a rumour by way of revenge. This is because the false one about me cut me out of the circuit of exchange.

How unjust!

As a result, I understand that gossiping has almost an amoral functioning. To participate in it is fine, but when the victim or a another person blows the whistle, they are breaking all the rules.

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This page contains a single entry published on June 12, 2003 4:09 PM.

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