Why did you decide to write a book about gossip? Most people would say it’s a bad practice that should be avoided.
Gossip may have a horrible reputation, but it serves an important function in human relations. As historian Yuval Noah Harari states in his book Sapiens, the ability to gossip is what separates us from other animals, and that’s an important reason why we are so successful as a species. In the past, you had a better chance of survival if you knew about the dangers surrounding you, and who your friends and allies were. It’s not much different in present day organizations. Gossip gives people an opportunity to bond and make friendships. You can also learn a lot by sharing stories about mistakes your colleagues have made, so you don’t have to repeat them. Which is why avoiding gossip altogether is not good a strategy. Not only do you miss out on a lot of learning opportunities, you also run the risk of being left out, and of being considered socially inept.
How do you define gossip, then?
In an academic sense, it’s when two people speak about an absent third party. The gossip can be positive, such as commenting about a mutual colleague’s good work. The negative stuff is more interesting though, because those are usually the conversations you can draw lessons from. But you have to be careful about it. Gossiping about a mistake you witnessed in order to warn somebody or to give them a heads up is perfectly fine. But repeating hearsay that reflects negatively on a colleague can be extremely harmful. That’s the difference between gossip and rumors, actually. Gossip tends to be closer to the truth, whereas rumors are usually stories that have been exaggerated and distorted. With gossip, the author is known, whereas with rumors, the author or source gets lost as stories spread from one person to the next.
How does one find that sweet spot?
That’s an extremely difficult task, for which there is no standard recipe. You need to strike a delicate balance in terms of how much you gossip at work. Never gossiping is not good, but spending too much time in front of the watercooler is also not wise, as you will quickly be perceived as untrustworthy. In order to find the sweet spot of gossip, you also need to take other factors into account, such as credibility, whom we gossip with, what we gossip about, culture and place.
My general advice is not to participate in gossip immediately, and try to figure out who in the organization you can trust first. So start slowly and see how people react. You should refrain from sharing too much if you feel that a person gossiping with you has an agenda, for instance. You should also realize that hierarchy plays a key role in organizations. It’s fine if you complain about a person to an equal, but gossiping with your superior can quickly be interpreted as backstabbing and tattle telling. The same holds true for managers. While it can be important for a leader to know what’s going on in the personal life of an employee, they should be careful not to share their own burdens.
Even if they’re the person that people gossip about?
It is often said that gossip is the weapon of the weak, and that people without much power get empowered by trash-talking their bosses. It’s a very natural thing to do, considering that managers often make decisions that people don’t understand. I think that managers need to accept it as a fact of life. It is true that many corporations, especially in the United States, try to crack down on gossip by having boxes where you can leave a note if you get wind of it, or even by reserving the right to sue a person if they catch them talking behind some other person’s back. Measures like those go against human nature and may even harm the organization, because it leaves people feeling unsafe. At the same time, I do believe that as a manager you can do a lot to reduce gossip. You can be more transparent and do a better job explaining your decisions. Also, leave your door open and pay attention to what’s going on. If you notice that people are getting upset, then you can be sure that there is a lot of gossip circulating.
Should managers make a distinction between male and female employees in this respect? There is a persistent notion that most gossip is done by women.
I think you can safely state that in the Western world, men gossip just as much as women. The main thing is the difference in perception. In popular culture and in Hollywood movies, it’s nearly always women who are depicted as badmouthing someone else, not their male counterparts. And when men do engage in gossip, we use different words for it. We describe it as ‘venting’, ‘shooting the breeze’, or ‘brainstorming’. It’s very unfair to women, actually.
You are a French-Canadian living and working in the Netherlands. Have you experienced any cultural differences in the way people gossip?
That’s where I really struggled when I first gossiped in The Netherlands. Canada is a low context culture - we need things to be spelled out in a very clear way. Whereas the Dutch can infer a lot of meaning in their gossip just by raising an eyebrow, for example. In the beginning, when I heard two of my colleagues gossip, I would push them to give me more information and details, to the point where they asked me: ‘can’t you take a hint?’ That was my cue to back off, haha.
Over Jeroen Ansink
Jeroen Ansink is financieel-economisch journalist en werkt in New York als correspondent voor FEM Business, Management Team, Forum en Fortune.com. Voor Managementboek schrijft hij interviews. Ansink voltooide een vrij doctoraal in de Letteren aan de Radboud Universiteit in Nijmegen en behaalde het certificaat Business Journalism aan de Wharton Business School aan de Universiteit van Pennsylvania.