Living room letters: office gossip

There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.

– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

I have my first Living room letter! Depending on how often I get letters, I will try to respond to them on my blog. Before I begin giving my thoughts on this week’s letter, I just want to put out a few disclaimers. I’m not a counsellor nor a psychologist so I can only give suggestions or my take on things. If you need expert advice, go seek it! I accept no responsibility for your decisions or actions on the back of my advice. It is your life and my wish is that you live it in the most informed and best way you can. Now, onwards to my first letter!

Dear Gemma,

Lately I have been reading up a lot about the subject of office gossip. I have discovered that gossiping is in the end a part of social behaviour which we all engage in more or less. But, what do you do when such gossip is damaging your reputation and even your future because you are the subject of mean and untrue observations? What do you do when you cannot approach the person who is spreading these untruths nor talk to those people that are hearing this gossip and tell them that it is untrue?

– NIMB

Dear NIMB,

First of all, thank you for writing in and congratulations on being the first Living room letter! I am honoured that you chose to write to me.

Your letter encouraged me to research what gossip is. We tend to think of gossip as harmful and negative talk spread between small groups of people about someone in particular, whether in the office or outside of it. However, as you say, it is part of social behaviour. Thanks to evolution, gossiping forms an essential part of who we are.

The word gossip originates from the Old English word godsibb. Godsibb referred to the godparents of a child or peers similar to godparents to whom one was particularly close. The term then evolved from a person who enjoys idle chat (normally a woman) to the actual topic of conversations, which is what we mostly use the term for today.

Gossip evolved as a result of language. According to research, before we could communicate through language, we tended to do so via one-to-one grooming (tending to, caring for or touching one another). We would form groups to protect ourselves against predators. As the risk from predators rose, the groups would start to expand. Since communication through grooming was becoming inadequate as this took a lot more time and could only be done one-by-one, language started to develop. As groups got bigger, people would have to figure out who to trust and who not to; who was a better mate or hunter-gatherer. Consequently, those who had an interest in the lives of others had an advantage. They were the ones who survived and thus “gossip” survived with them.

Gossip is seen to have positive functions. It can be a useful and powerful way to transmit information about rules and social norms. It can curb the free-rider problem: it makes people more aware of others who are exploiting our good nature for their selfish gains. It allows us to avoid mistakes or uncalculated risks, knowing the unpleasant consequences that have fallen on those who have made them. Thus gossip can help us navigate better our own lives.

So far, gossip doesn’t sound too bad and it has been argued by the psychologist Robin Dunbar that it is an intrinsic part of human nature (as a result of natural selection), and that our societies would not be as sophisticated as they are, nor would they be able to function as well, without it.

But what actually is gossip? In the broad sense of the word, it is conversation about social and personal topics. But our contemporary understanding of gossip tends to have negative undertones. It is harmful for the person who is at the centre of the gossip and it is done with self-interest of the gossiper. One such definition of gossip states: “Gossip tends to be talk that gains attention for the speaker. The speaker will often adopt a confidential tone and is using the information about somebody else to be the center of attention and will impart the details in a way that tries to undermine the credibility or likability of another person. The details may be given with moralizing undertones and character assassination may be the top of the gossiper’s agenda. Often you are told more personal details than you care to know about. The motivations behind gossip include attention-seeking, self-inflation, exaggeration and a me-versus-them mentality;”.

Before I give my thoughts on your letter, I want to lay down a few findings about gossip, which you may find useful or helpful. First, that the emotional response of the person who hears the gossip relates little to how the person views the target of the gossip. How strongly the person reacts to the gossip is more to do with how much it resonates with them as a useful life-lesson. Secondly, people tend to be interested in gossip concerning those that are of the same (or higher) social status, age and gender as them. Women in particular are more obsessed with gossip about other females than men are about other males. Thirdly, people tend to prefer hearing about the misfortunes of their peers rather than of their fortunes (although this differed if it concerned family and friends). Finally, people that engage in gossip regularly are seen as having less social power and are less liked.

Having considered all of the above, if I was in your shoes, the first question I would ask myself is, “Is it worth confronting the person that is telling these rumours and the people who believe them?” To unpack this question a bit more, I would also ask myself, “Will anyone remember this gossip in a year’s time?”

I do not know what the gossip about you is but it sounds serious if you say that it is damaging your reputation and possibly your future. Saying that, I think it is important to take a step back and really think about the consequences of confronting the gossiper and the believers of the gossip. What are you hoping will be achieved by confronting them? And will such confrontation realistically achieve it?

Since evidence shows that a regular gossiper is not really liked, I would also consider what type of person the gossiper is. If they regularly engage in gossip, then chances are that people don’t take them seriously and merely pay them lip service. On the other hand, if the gossiper is actually someone who is well-regarded then I think it would be possible to speak with them in a non-aggressive and clear manner about how these rumours are making your professional life uncomfortable. If the gossiper is of good standing then I assume that they would welcome the rectification. I wonder however whether such a person would engage in malicious gossip in the first place.

If I was going to confront the gossiper or the believers, I would have to be certain that they are the right people to confront in addition to being certain as to what actually was being said. If I got these wrong, it may make matters much worse.

For workplace advice, I regularly turn to the Guardian’s Dear Jeremy. In one such scenario, a cruel joke at work was made about the letter-writer. The writer wondered whether it was best to make a formal complaint. Jeremy advised, “The thing to hang on to, I suspect, is that stories of this kind – like most things in life – do, over time, naturally decay. As children probably still say dismissively, “That’s stale buns”. If left alone, unrefreshed, rumour and malicious gossip gradually lose their ability to capture anybody’s interest and attention. So your guiding principle should be: do everything you can to avoid giving new legs to an ageing lie.

By confronting such gossip, one may run the risk of adding fuel to the fire, causing others to believe that there is some truth to it. Whilst it is hard to say nothing at all and hurtful to endure, it is even harder for the gossip to sustain its momentum, or for anyone to discern to any extent what is fact from what is fiction.

If you do feel that this is something worth confronting others about then here are some possible tips on how best to do it. Whatever you decide to do, please make sure that you are fully informed of your decision and of the ensuing consequences.

I hope that my take on things has assisted you in some way. I wish you the very best of luck whatever you choose to do. On a lighter note, imagine working in an environment which banned office gossip altogether, as one workplace did.

Best wishes,

Gemma

Advertisements