Between you and me, it's not really gossip

July 10, 1998

You either love it or you loathe it, but office gossip is rife in just about every organisation.

Work psychologists have found that in the modern office "tittle-tattle" has been upgraded to career "networking", and men are as likely to indulge as women.

The findings of a study presented to an International Work Psychology conference at Sheffield University raise searching questions about the role of office gossip and suggest it can reveal more about an organisation than the personal relationships within it.

Kathryn Waddington, a senior lecturer at South Bank University who led the research, firmly debunked the myth that office gossips are primarily female. "Traditionally gossip has been viewed as women's talk, and in the context of the workplace something to be discouraged or even banned," she said. "But what is clear from the preliminary findings of this study is that men and women do gossip equally but they appear to differ with regard to who they gossip with, and why."

Ms Waddington defines gossip as the verbal exchange of information about people and organisations that occurs informally, often in small groups, face to face. In other words, the small talk that for many people makes going to work bearable - or unbearable.

Because gossip has been seen as women's talk it has often been dismissed as trivial. But it is anything but, according to Ms Waddington.

"Gossip is often repackaged as networking these days, and there are some important similarities between gossip and discourse and debate. People often use gossip as a form of inquiry, to test hypotheses. And there is a fine line, for instance, between peer review and gossip. Where does one end and the other begin? Gossip is a pervasive and complex activity."

Anthropologists have long been interested in gossip, and some even believe it is such a key social activity that language developed specifically so that people could gossip.

Ms Waddington said: "All organisations are small communities where the village well has become the photocopier as a place where people pass the time of day and rumours are passed on."

Gossip often has a different role for individuals and for groups. Issues of social control, for instance, reputation and group cohesion often underpin gossip.

Ms Waddington's research centres on interviews with a group of nurses in an attempt to identify the characteristics of gossip and the people who do it. The results show that while both males and females gossip, the reason and the way they do it differ quite markedly.

For women, the motive was improving interpersonal relationships or making friends. For men, the position in the organisation was uppermost in their minds. Gossip was much more of a status enhancer and there were distinct groups with whom men said they would not gossip.

"Gossip can be very divisive in terms of who is in the know and who is not," Ms Waddington said.

Another study reported at the conference on relationship patterns with work colleagues threw up interesting gender observations.

Wendy Button of Salford University found that in social communications, the women in her study of two companies preferred the company of other women. Likewise men chose to socialise with other men.

When participants in the study were asked to rank their relationships with colleagues, women ranked their relationships with other female colleagues, irrespective of their status, as equal. But men tended to give their superior colleagues high ratings.

Thus a junior male in an organisation would value his relationship with a senior male quite highly, but this value was not reciprocated by the senior male.

There was a clear discrepancy, however, since men gave a low value rating to female bosses and female junior colleagues alike. Since men always rated their male counterparts more highly, women were losing out, Ms Button said.

"Perhaps it is time to recognise who you do talk to at work, and question why you are rating your male and female colleagues differently," she concludes.

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