The Psychology of Gossip and the Grapevine

However smart and smooth the “internal communications department” gossip thrives in organisations;   particularly those  in trouble. Glossy in-house (staff) magazines, a monthly video talk from the CEO, regular email communication can neither prevent nor even inhibit the work of the grapevine. Often the attempt to formalise, control and sanitise all communication within an organisation really back-fires. It is seen as window-dressing, propaganda, and little more than PR for senior managers. Gossip, is trusted, its fun, and it seems, is endemic.

In his socio-biologically inspired book entitled Managing the Human Animal, Nigel Nicholson from London Business School argues that we hard-wired to appreciate gossip. Business gossip, he argues, is a sort of interpersonal grooming. In the process people are able to establish where they are in the hierarchy, who the key people at work are, what threats and opportunities lie on the horizon, as well keeping up the information highway to one another and signifying that the other person is valuable and important.

Gossip is the glue of networks. It is a bonding mechanism. And of course it serves to make-up for all the incompetencies of the formal internal stuff. Rumours are trusted more than official communiqués because the latter are all too often censored, late and distorted.

So much for the business take. What is the psychology of gossip?

Ubiquitous and unacceptable, gossip has a long history because it serves such important functions.  Both Ecclesiastes and Leviticus warn against it.  It is the destroyer of relationships and reputations a hubble-bubble cauldron of trouble.

The dictionary emphasises the light, trivial and trifling nature of gossip.  It also specifies the negative aspect – the groundless rumour, the tittle-tattle, the evidence-free idle talk.

Gossip varies according to the type of gossip, the number of gossipers, the status of the gossiper and, perhaps surprisingly, the credibility (legitimacy) of the gossiper.

Get on the ethical high-horse and gossip of all kinds is unequivocally morally indefensible.  Gossipers are purveyors of misinformation bursting with envy, pusillanimity and venom.

How common is it?  Well, that depends on the definition.  A pretty inclusive definition is that: gossip is the producing, hearing or otherwise participating in evaluative comment about someone not present.  It means spreading rumours, telling tales, talking behind people’s backs.  Of course one can make interesting academic distinctions between malicious gossip and salacious gossip.  Between ‘idle’ gossip and goal-oriented gossip.  Between accurate and inaccurate gossip.

But it’s pretty common.  Given the above definition researchers estimate that as much as 70% of conversation time at work involves gossip.

Most agree that a necessary, if not sufficient, definition of gossip is that a third-party,  indeed the very focus of the activity, is not present.  It is it is all about A talking to B about C who is not there.  You can’t gossip about yourself.  You can disclose things about yourself and guess what others are saying about you. But self-gossip is oxymoronic.

Gossip is colourful, evaluation and has valence.  In short, it is juicy.  It can be hagiographically positive or demoniacally negative.  It is deeply value-laden.  You have praising gossip and blaming gossip.  Anointing and assassinating gossip.  Virtual spiral or vicious circle gossip.  It is rarely bland, factual or disinterested.

The content of the conversation is not the only factor that distinguishes it.  You need the right setting for gossip, the atmosphere; the peculiarly ‘licensed’ conditions for the activity.  A gossip-friendly, gossip-inducing, gossip-accepting situation is one of intimacy and intrigue; gusto and gutsiness; drama and bedevilment.

Gossip exists because it has serious social functions.  It creates group solidarity by facilitatory information.

Curiously gossip is both an efficient and exclusive means of gathering and disseminating information.  It is the inside scoop versus the official line.  It is useful, timely, even rare currency.  Gossipers have status – their access to and understanding of information is pretty important.  They control a scarce resource.  It has exchange value.

Gossip is above all entertainment.  It is unalloyed fun.  It is a bulwark against monotony.  It is storytelling and recreational.

Sharing gossip builds and secures bonds.  It brings people together, establishes boundaries.  It sets the limits of the clan, culture and tribe.  You have to be an insider to appreciate and deal in gossip.  Insiders are trusted with and appreciate gossip: outsiders are simply excluded.

Gossip can be enormously influential.  It can cut down the tall poppy; it can police free-loaders and social cheats; it can praise and shame.

Gossip is often the way corporate cultures are established and maintained.  Corporate cultures are about mores and norms; formal and informal rules and who breaks them. Gossip pricks pompous balloons.  It is the antidote to spin, to inaccurate impression management, to PR.

The subjects of gossip sometimes try to so something about it.  They might reduce their eccentricities, obey the rules more or ferret out the gossipers.  Often gossipers have simultaneously  to hide details of their lives while exposing others.

So gossip may be a benign hobby, a social glue or a pretentions pricker.  But is it good for you?  Has it an  adaptive function?  Gossip can be cathartic – it can help to let off steam.  But it can induce guilt.  The gossiper is in an ambivalent situation.  Gossips try to camouflage their activity and motives by ‘letting things slip’.

So gossip has its euphemisms: you chew the fat, shoot the breeze,  chit-chat, or talk shop   Doing lunch, or meeting for a drink, may be an acceptable way to meet for gossip.

Gossip is good for you?  Well sort of.  It can be the most accurate, efficient and successful channel of useful communications.  It has a social and survival function and a clear utility value.  But it can ‘eat-up’ the gossiper in guilt or act as a dangerous and devious conduit of half-truths and distortions.

We are at once morally ambivalent and socially dependent on organisational gossip.