Could adults gossiping in the office be more devious than the teenagers in “Gossip Girl”?
If you have a hard time believing this, then you must have skipped the latest issue of the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. Perhaps you saw “ethnography” and assumed it would just be quaint reports from the Amazon and the South Seas. But this time enthnographers have returned from the field with footage of a truly savage native ritual: teachers at an elementary school in the Midwest dishing about their principal behind her back.
These are rare records of “gossip episodes,” which have been the subject of a long-running theoretical debate among anthropologists and sociologists. One side, the functionalist school, sees gossip as a useful tool for enforcing social rules and maintaining group solidarity. The other school sees gossip more as a hostile endeavor by individuals selfishly trying to advance their own interests.
But both schools have spent more time theorizing than observing gossipers in their natural habitats. Until now, their flow charts of gossips’ conversations (where would social science be without flow charts?) have been largely based on studies in informal settings, like the casual conversations recorded in a German housing project and in the cafeteria of an American middle school.
The earlier studies found that once someone made a negative comment about a person who wasn’t there, the conversation would get meaner unless someone immediately defended the target. Otherwise, among both adults and teenagers, the insults would keep coming because there was so much social pressure to agree with the others.
Consider, for instance, the cascade of insults recorded in the earlier study of middle-school gossip by Donna Eder and Janet Lynne Enke of Indiana University. In this cafeteria conversation, a group of eighth-grade girls in the cafeteria were discussing an overweight classmate whose breasts they considered too large for her age:
Penny: In choir that girl was sitting in front of us and we kept going, “Moo.”
Karen: We were going, “Come here, cow; come here, cow.”
Bonnie: I know. She is one.
Penny: She looks like a big fat cow.
Julie: Who is that?
Bonnie: That girl on the basketball team.
Penny: That big red-headed cow.
Julie: Oh, yeah. I know. She is a cow.
The new study found that gossip in the workplace also tended to be overwhelmingly negative, but the insults were more subtle and the conversations less predictable, says Tim Hallett, a sociologist at Indiana University. Dr. Hallett conducted the study along with Dr. Eder and Brent Harger of Albright College.
“Office gossip can be a form of reputational warfare,” Dr. Hallett says. “It’s like informal gossip, but it’s richer and more elaborate. There are more layers to it because people practice indirectness and avoidance. People are more cautious because they know they can lose not just a friendship but a job.”
During his two years studying the group dynamics at a Midwestern elementary school, which allowed him access on condition of anonymity, Dr. Hallett found that the teachers became so comfortable with him and his camera that they would freely insult their bosses during one-on-one interviews. But at the teachers’ formal group meetings, where they knew that another teacher might report their insults to the principal, they were more discreet.
Instead of making direct criticisms, they sometimes offered obliquely sarcastic comments to test the waters. They used another indirect tactic categorized as praise the predecessor, as in the meeting when a teacher fondly recalled a previous administration: “It was so calm, and you could teach. No one was constantly looking over your shoulder.” The other teachers quickly agreed. No one explicitly called the current principal an authoritarian busybody, but that was the obvious implication.
Some teachers were especially adept at managing gossip. At one meeting, after someone complained about a student walking around with his hair shaped into horns (“Tell me, how is that part of the uniform dress code?”), the group began blaming the lapse in discipline on the assistant principal. The gossip seemed to be going down the same nasty track as the teenagers’ she’s-such-a-cow episode until another teacher, an ally of the assistant principal, smoothly intervened.
First, the teacher interrupted the attack by asking the name of the student with the horns. That deflected the group’s gossip on to the student’s academic difficulties and weird behavior (“He’s gotta frighten the little kids”). Then the teacher masterfully completed the rescue of the assistant principal by changing the topic entirely, reminding everyone of a different disciplinary issue that was the fault of a less popular administrator — the principal, who promptly became the new focus of the groups’ anger.
The teachers’ gossip never got as blatantly mean as the teenage girls’ — no one was ever called a cow — but in some ways the effects were more widely felt.
As teachers mocked the principal and complained about her being “stifling” and “hyper,” the atmosphere got more poisonous. The principal felt that her authority was being undermined by gossip and retaliated against teachers she suspected (correctly) of criticizing her. Teachers and administrators fled the school, and the students’ test scores declined.
“The gossip did serve to reinforce the teachers’ group solidarity, but in this case it was also a form of warfare that brought everyone down,” Dr. Hallett says. “It was reminiscent of the old saying that gossip is a three-pronged tongue: it can hurt the speaker and the listener, as well as the target.”
Some bosses have tried turning the office into a “no-gossip zone,” but Dr. Hallett says it is more realistic to try managing it.
If, say, an office rival seems poised to trash one of your absent allies, Dr. Hallett suggests you make a “pre-emptive positive evaluation.” A quick “Isn’t she doing a great job?” might be enough to stop the attack.
If your rival tries persisting with indirect sarcasm — “Oh, real great job” — you can force the issue by calmly asking what that means. That simple question, a dare made in a pleasant voice, often silenced the sarcastic gossips observed by Dr. Hallett.
And if that doesn’t work, Dr. Hallett suggests you try an even simpler tactic that was used successfully at the teachers’ meetings — and that is available in any workplace anytime. In fact, it’s one of the tactics that distinguishes office gossip from nonoffice gossip. When the going gets tough, when the gossip gets mean, you always have one reliable escape line: “Don’t we have some work to do here?”
John Tierney, New York Times
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