Many associate gossip with malicious rumours. But it doesn’t have to be that way. When it comes to workplaces, gossip is actually something that can help us work together.
For many people, life during the pandemic has felt soulless. Even though working and shopping remotely have turned out to be feasible, something has been missing from daily life – contact with others. The small talk over a cup of coffee, by the photocopier or on the bus. The exchange of information that’s not about work, but rather about other people – how they do their work, how they behave, or why they left. This is what researcher Károly Takács calls “gossip”.
“We love to gossip! Partly because it’s something we can all get together and do. In times gone by we gathered around the campfire, and nowadays we gather around the coffee machine. Under the COVID-19 pandemic, all that disappeared”, says Károly Takács, sitting in his daughter’s room at home just outside Norrköping. He sits in a little box on the screen, a man dressed in a light shirt, surrounded by light pink walls.
Gossip is a big part of daily life and, contrary to popular belief, the content of it can be both neutral and positive.
“We researchers define gossip as the exchange of information between individuals concerning somebody who isn’t there. It doesn’t actually have the negative connotations that people generally associate with it”, says Károly Takács. Prior to the pandemic, he worked onsite at the Institute for Analytical Sociology at Linköping University.
It has been estimated that gossip makes up two thirds of our informal communication. Photo credit Anna NilsenWhy do we spend so much time gossiping? One of the explanations lies in evolution. Early humans created a sense of fellowship and intimacy by picking lice from each other’s hair. Put simply, gossip is an extension of such personal moments. Speaking about somebody who’s not present is something that unites and creates connections between us.
“When we gossip, we lean in, lower our voices and create a sense of intimacy”, says Károly Takács, showing what he means with hand gestures.
We also gossip in order to cooperate. The very knowledge that other people are talking about us makes us more willing to work with others. After all, who wants their colleagues to gossip about their poor performance?
“This informal chatter is very important at a workplace. For us to be able to work together, we have to build up trust, and one way we do that is by gossiping.”
Károly Takács even jokes that gossip ought to have higher status in the workplace. As he sees it, every organisation has its share of problems, and managers should realise that gossip helps their staff work together.
“Gathering around the coffee machine is important! And maybe the managers at Linköping University have understood this – there are coffee machines in every division”, he says, laughing.
Károly Takács has only lived in Sweden for two years. He changed workplace and country when life as a researcher in Hungary became too difficult.
In October, Károly Takács was one of the guest editors for the academic journal Philosophical Transactions. He helped edit a special issue about the “language of cooperation”. The issue brought together a large group of gossip experts who have studied the subject in both the natural and social sciences. The journal’s researchers showed that our workplace gossip is often about evaluating how well our colleagues work together, and how capable, reliable and nice they are.
But we’re also interested in whether somebody has broken workplace norms and transgressed the boundaries of accepted behaviour. Even if the content of our gossip is mostly innocent, there is, naturally, negative gossip. But this has a purpose too.
“If you’re the subject of gossip, it can be bad for you of course. But it may encourage you to get your act together. So negative gossip about an individual can, in fact, be good for the whole group.”
In other words, gossip has an undeserved bad reputation. Employers can even benefit from the informal chatter of their staff. Does this mean that gossip – and being gossiped about – is nothing to be ashamed of?
“Gossip is a part of how humans communicate. Being able to work together and share information in this way is part of what differentiates us from animals. It’s wonderful! It’s something we don’t see with other species.”
So, time to get back to work and gossip round the coffee machine.