“If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody come sit next to me,” said Alice Roosevelt Longworth.
This week The Washington Post Researchers are trying to convince us that gossip is good for us and our communities. It minimizes bullying by calling out bad behavior and creates an understanding of the rules and boundaries of our values because those who break them usually become the subject of our gossip. ‘Groups that allow their members to gossip sustain cooperation and deter selfishness better than those who don’t. And groups do even better if they can gossip and ostracize unworthy members,” concludes a researcher at Stanford University. The research construct allowed people to learn through gossip about the behavior of others to align themselves with the most cooperative members of the group. Often a selfish or exploitative person will be left out of a group intentionally and may have to adjust behaviors or language to be accepted. If we know people are talking then we may adjust ourselves to be more generous than we naturally are to create a better impression and reputation.
But wait a second before you head out to the water cooler. This approach fails to take into account the atmosphere of distrust and toxicity that pervades office cultures where gossip is an accepted norm. You cannot limit the subject of gossip to mean people. Gossip is not that discriminating. Don’t forget, if you leave the water cooler too early, then you become the topic of conversation.
When you are in a leadership position, your gossip can be the most dangerous and enervating of all, draining the energy and vitality of your work community. And that’s not only because you can probably dish up the most dirt on your employees, but because you have the influence to create an atmosphere of trust and safety or drama and fear.
Proverbs tells us that gossip is simply delicious. It’s a dainty morsel, a little treat for the ear that provides deep satisfaction: “The words of gossips are like choice snacks; they go down to the inmost parts,” (18:8). But the satisfaction is only temporary, like that piece of rich cake that you probably should have refused. A moment on the lips, forever on the hips. When it comes to gossip, a moment on the lips and our relationships slip, taking our credibility and trust with them on the way down.