Gossip is often seen as bad. When you hear the word gossip, what often comes to people’s minds is usually from hot news about celebrities to bad behavior of teenagers shown on television shows Gossip Girl. Although often thought of as mere rumours, gossip has turned out to be an important part of politics and shows how the world works.
Things related to gossip are usually closely associated with the image of women who like to gossip. An informal analysis of 100 images with the keyword ‘gossip’ on Google showed 62% were images of women gossiping, and only 7% showed images of men. The remaining 31% showed women and men gossiping together. This reinforces the popular myth that men don’t gossip.
In fact, research shows that both men and women gossip in the same amount and intensity.
The existence of gossip can be traced from the beginning of the formation of language as an intermediary of communication between humans. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar argues that language evolved to allow people to gossip . From its ancient form to its present day, gossip has become a way of conveying social information about who can (and cannot) be trusted, who is only looking for profit, and who is talking nonsense.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the word gossip (originally godsibb meaning “parent/godparent” in Old English) evolved to refer to women helping other women during childbirth . Over time and after several spelling changes, the term gossip was eventually defined as “anyone who engages in useless talk” .
The term gossip did not take on a negative meaning until the 16th-18th centuries, when witch -hunts were carried out by many European kingdoms in ancient times. At that time, gossip was considered to trigger accusations of witchcraft and witchcraft, which then led to the practice of torture as an effort to punish and silence women. This is the beginning of the emergence of the reputation and negative stereotypes against gossip which is associated as “women’s conversation”.
Paradoxically, at the same time, gossip in the context of conversations between men became popular throughout the 17th and 18th centuries in coffee shops in England , the exclusive gathering place of educated and wealthy men who came just to chat showing intelligence and their intellectual talent. There is hardly any evidence of women in the tavern except as waitresses. This is what reinforces the notion that ‘women gossip’, whereas ‘men have serious conversations’.
My research on gossip and organizations breaks the illusion that gossip is just a small talk by women. When interviewing men about their experiences of gossiping at work, most of them start with “I’m not a gossip person, but…”, and then they talk at length about how they use gossip strategically and politically.
I found many subtleties of meaning for the term gossip, such as “ shop talk ” (talk about work in social or informal situations), “post-meeting discussion”, and “corridor conversation”. Men seem to feel more comfortable with these terms.
Instead of asking “what’s the gossip?” after their vacation, they prefer to ask “what happened?”. The intent of the question is the same, but men often don’t want to be embarrassed and associated with gossiping. Similarly, the term they use to describe people who gossip is “they are good listeners” and have “good skills”.
Gossip at work
Many people are calling for gossiping should be banned in the workplace .
Popular stereotypes overemphasize negative judgments about gossip. In fact, gossip can also be associated with compassion and empathy. Gossip can be a way of expressing emotions, both positive and negative, a way of “letting off steam” and emotional reactions to perceived social injustices.
There are times when gossip can also be an expression of concern about unethical matters or behavior. For example, when there is a case about sexual harassment but no one speaks up, even though many already know about it. When the topic of gossip is about bad practices in an organization, gossip should be an early warning signal that there is something to pay attention to, not ignore it.
I’m not saying that all gossip is good.
There are times when gossip can damage the reputation of a person or an organization. Negative gossip is a form of bullying which, of course, is detrimental to others. The decision to gossip or not is an ethical decision.
The meaning of gossip has gradually changed since I first started researching and writing about it more than 25 years ago. As written in my latest book “ Gossip, Organization and Work ”, gossip is now being taken seriously and has become a topic of research in communication and business sciences.
Globally, the #MeToo movement has changed perceptions of gossip, such as the emergence of a “ speak up culture ”, and encouraged the creation of a psychologically safe environment to express fearlessly. Whistleblowing plays an important role in uncovering a case. The focus on gossip has now shifted, from gossip as a form of trouble to gossip as a way of showing the “problem behind the problem” – uncovering hidden structural problems.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also made it clearer about the benefits of gossip. In just overnight, the lockdown policies have closed the space for individuals to have casual conversations or gossip – chats in coffee shops, discussions before or after meetings. Now that many people have returned to face-to-face activities, they will probably realize how important gossiping moments are for social bonds and relationships.
Author Bio: Kathryn Waddington is a Reader in Psychology at the University of Westminster