The Functions of Gossip

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One of my clients worked for the boss from hell. Her boss gave staff members goals that pitted them against each other. As you might imagine, the office was rife with gossip.

Because the boss was despised and feared by many, telling stories about her felt particularly delicious, and it also offered a measure of protection against her “let’s you and she fight” leadership style.

Some excellent research illuminates the positive function of gossip. In one study, social psychologists measured the heart rates of players in a game. When they observed other players cheating, their heart rates increased. When they were able to slip a “gossip note” to fellow players to warn them, their heart rates went down. This is a nice illustration of how people feel compelled physiologically to “spread the news.” Other studies showed that simply knowing that one’s actions would be visible to the group, curbed selfish behavior.

Groups help us survive. Early humans who stuck together had the best chance of living long and raising offspring. Being expelled from a group and its protection was a death sentence. Well-functioning groups helps us survive, and we are hard wired to protect them from deviants. Gossip is a highly efficient control mechanism for that purpose.

The darker side of gossip shows when people use it to enhance their own status in a group at the expense of others. It’s the whispering voice that has launched hundreds of celebrity gossip magazines and that torments teens with cyber bullying.

In my client’s case, even though there were times when her gossip was counterproductive, she couldn’t resist. I asked her if she knew how to politely excuse herself when talk turned to gossip. She did, but she did not want to, because she was “the queen of office gossip.”

Now, one does not meet The Queen of Office Gossip everyday! I asked her if for five nights in a row she would, as The Queen, write her memoirs. This story emerged in her writing.

She is a young girl, maybe 10 years old. Her father is a mean drunk who, in his alcoholic rages, withholds her mother’s insulin. Her job is to keep her mother alive by finding insulin and sneaking it to her. To succeed, she must pay attention to every gesture and voice tone that lets her know how to accomplish her mission.

I imagine that you are as horrified as I was to hear this story. As it turned out, simply bringing that memory to light helped her relax about office gossip, and she felt less compelled to engage in it. I suggested that it would be beneficial to explore this issue in depth with a psychologist. Happily, today this client is thriving.

I hope this post gives you a taste for the complexity of gossip and the many functions it serves. Does it spark your thinking? I’m interested to hear your insights and stories.

Here’s the excellent article in the NYTimes by Alina Tugend that inspired this blog post.

Originally published at StephenJosephs.com.

About the Author

Stephen Josephs has coached executives and top performers at some of the world’s most impressive organizations for 30+ years. By applying psychology and transformational methods to leadership development, Stephen brings an integrated approach that maximizes performance and helps leaders find new ways to expand their effectiveness. His book, Dragons at Work, is a seminal text on peak performance and leadership management.

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