Have you heard?
Don’t tell anyone, but…
I really shouldn’t say anything, but did you know…
This stays between us…
Miss Manners might clutch her pearls at the idea of this decorum-shattering habit, but gossip isn’t always in poor form. While it is mainly talk about someone who isn’t present, it doesn’t always have to carry a negative connotation.
Is 2023 the year you’ve vowed to elevate your workplace etiquette? Read on to better understand why people gossip in the first place, types of gossip to avoid and how to better engage in watercooler (or Zoom) talk to reap gossip’s many benefits.
Why do we do it?
Fifty-two minutes equates to about two Emily in Paris episodes. It’s also the amount of time the typical person spends per day gossiping in a 16-hour day, according to a May 2019 study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. Given the amount of hours we devote each day to working, it tracks that the two intersect. At some point doing our workday, we’ll casually share information with one another—in other words, gossip. A recent TIME magazine article even declared 2022 to be “the year of gossip.” In it, Andrea McDonnell, an associate professor and director of the communication program at Providence College, theorized that since it was the first full year of being back together since the pandemic began, this type of conversation—particularly celebrity-focused gossip—“gives us a common topic of discussion.”
And it’s been around as long as human beings have.
“It’s pretty generally accepted among social scientists (at least those who accept the theory of evolution) that gossip is likely a relic of our evolutionary past,” Frank T. McAndrew, Cornelia H. Dudley professor of psychology at Knox College, told NBC News BETTER. “In order to survive and pass along your genes it has pretty much always been necessary to know about the lives of those around you.”
Mark Leary, a professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, told Health magazine he believes “gossiping is a fundamental human instinct because our lives are deeply rooted in groups.”
Gossip can also exemplify who’s acting within cultural norms—and criticize those who color outside the lines. Megan Robbins, an associate professor of psychology at The University of California, Riverside, shared this example with TIME magazine: “If there’s someone who cheats a lot in a community or social circle and people start to talk about that person in a negative way… the collective criticism should warn others of the consequences of cheating.”
That collective criticism can “serve to keep people in check, morally speaking,” she said.
When gossip is bad
Let’s start with the less than flattering reputation gossip often has, as the negative impacts pack a potent punch. You’re likely familiar with the signs: suspicious glances, a growing lack of trust and a loose thread that leads to a large rip in the very fabric of your team.
Denise Burrell, co-founder of The Performance Group OE Inc., a consulting firm that provides leadership coaching and workplace training, told The Globe and Mail that “gossip is often just one element in a team implosion.”
“The gossip isn’t the issue, but it is an early warning signal that things could move into that more unprofessional conduct, people ganging up,” she said.
So how do you stay on the right side of the gossip line? Avoid sharing others’ misfortunes. Don’t pass along any news if you suss out the original sharer’s malintent. If you would fear repercussions if people learned you spilled the beans, it’s best to keep your mouth zipped.
When gossip is good
Now let’s accentuate the positive. If you’re looking to better connect and bond with others, gossip can help facilitate that.
“There’s an intimacy to sharing experiences and feeling like you’re on the same page about others,” Stacy Torres, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, San Francisco, told TIME magazine.
Robb Willer, professor of sociology and director of the Polarization and Social Change Laboratory at Stanford University, is co-author of the study “The virtues of gossip: reputational information sharing as prosocial behavior.” He told NBC News BETTER that “a lot of gossip is driven by concern for others and has positive, social effects.”
For example, according to the same article, “work from [Willer’s] group has also found that engaging in gossip can actually temper some of our frustrations and other negative emotions we feel when we find out someone has behaved in a deviant way.”
Other good things the art of gossip can illuminate? Think about if a coworker tells you another colleague is in line for a promotion levels above their current role. Perhaps this motivates and inspires you to consider what actions you should take to level up yourself.
Or perhaps another department’s long-time leader is retiring, and they’ve hired someone external to fill the role. This person’s positive reputation and go-getter attitude precedes her a few weeks before her arrival. This news of the changing of the guard might be the impetus for you to ideate on how your departments could usher in a new era of collaborating more closely.
Now armed with this information, go forth this year and gossip (wisely)!
Photo by Ilona Kozhevnikova/Shutterstock
Jill McDonnell is a Chicago-based content writer and communications professional. She has a bachelor's degree in magazine journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master's degree in public relations and advertising from DePaul University. She is currently at work on a psychological thriller novel.