I’ve been thinking about gossip recently. The thing that got me thinking was a coffee with a friend. In the last year, most of my meetings and many of my social interactions have been virtual. But I met my friend in person — socially distant, outside — for coffee. We were talking about some recent events, news about organizations and personalities. She knows things, the real story, and she told me what she knew. And it was eye-opening. She told me about tensions between staff, internal disputes, human resources issues. Suddenly, what I had learned through news reports and public statements made sense. I could see what had happened, but she had information that explained why.
After our conversation, I felt better. Partly because the gossip she shared helped me to see the world more clearly. But also because it was reassuring to learn that even prominent people and institutions, worthy of admiration and support, are still subject to the same human flaws, pettiness, vanity, and foibles that we all share. There was schadenfreude, and also sympathy.
After more than a year of working remotely, I realized how much I miss gossip. And also how much it helps to understand the world. I find I get a lot less of it than I used to. So much gossip was shared casually, informally, in hallways, between meetings, over coffee or cocktails. Working remotely, it was rare, and difficult, to create the kind of intimacy and trust that fosters gossip-sharing over zoom.
Gossip has a bad reputation. And gossip can certainly have harmful consequences. Passing around inaccurate or unsubstantiated information — rumors — isn’t good and can cause all sorts of damage. Some gossip is meant to cause reputational damage, or expose embarrassing information. It might be interesting or even fun, but it’s hard to defend
But a lot of gossip is not rumors or meant to harm, but rather is meant to explain events or motivations. Gossip can tell the story behind the story, to make the world legible. Gossip can expose the human side of things; the ambitions, desires, fears the underlie decisions and actions. Gossip can be personal, but also institutional. Gossip is information, sometimes very valuable, and can be extremely helpful for business or professional purposes.
Gossip can be subversive, challenging power dynamics with information outside of formal, hierarchical channels. Powerful people can control what goes into press releases and HR announcements. But they can’t control gossip. My friend Pablo Suarez says gossip is “a defense against bullshit” when those in power aren’t telling the truth or are speaking in vagaries.
Gossip can help provide a narrative arc behind events, highlighting motives, patterns, and personal dynamics that are hard to see otherwise. Why is the CEO so stressed out? Is there a reason a staff vacancy hasn’t been filled? Gossip is the story-telling that explains the world.
I’m attracted to the humanity of gossip, how it often helps explain things in terms of interests and motives: who benefits and who is harmed, why do people and institutions do the things they do. Gossip pierces corporate-speak and the euphemisms and vagaries of the modern workplace. Gossip doesn’t respect power or position and can be a channel for sympathy, solidarity, even organizing. And gossip can be a window into unfamiliar territory. You can learn things about the world, about people, about culture, about possibilities through gossip.
On the other hand, there are some cautions about gossip. Since gossip is inherently about something of interest, it tends to focus on norm violations, misdeeds, eccentricities. One person described gossip as a form of social discipline. People don’t like to be gossiped about — so that will tend to reinforce conservative and conventional behavior and norms. That’s not all bad; it can “sustain cooperation and deter selfishness”. Gossip can be seen as an organic 360 degree review. But obviously, conformism has a long repressive history.
Another caution about gossip is that it flows informally and among existing social and professional networks. People share gossip with trusted friends and colleagues. In that way, it’s exclusionary. There are those “in the know” and those not. If you’re not already part of friendships and networks, it’s hard to gain access to gossip. And gossip is very valuable for the information itself and for the shared stories that provide a social — sometimes professional — foundation. Not knowing the gossip can make you an outsider, without valuable information and also without the shared intimacy of knowing it.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the role of gossip, positive and negative and sometimes tweeting a bit about it. And, funny thing, sometimes people see tweets and want to talk about them. Which is how I ended up talking to Rachel Feintzeig, columnist of the Wall Street Journal on the topic of gossip during COVID.
Not my usual area of expertise, but maybe I have a future in gossip?
- Note: this is a draft and may be revised.