As long as there have been offices, there have been people who gossip about people who work in those offices (gossip defined as talking about someone who isn’t present). Same holds true for any family or social circle. The assumption has always been that what’s being gossiped about isn’t good.
But that’s not so.
In a study by UCLA psychologists Megan Robbins and Alexander Karan, numbers were put to gossiping for the first time. The researchers analyzed conversations between people that had agreed to wear a portable recording device for two to five days. (I’d gouge my eyes out if I was the dude asked to sift through all the chit-chat).
It turns out we gossip 52 minutes a day, men the same amount of time as women, in case you were about to label. But 85 percent of the gossip is harmless, nonjudgmental small talk — the sharing of information about people both parties know. Only 15 percent of gossip is negative or mean-spirited. I honestly thought it would have been much higher.
But there’s more surprises still.
Gossip of all kinds has several positive effects.
Research from Stanford and Berkeley has shown that gossip can help build group cohesion and cooperation. As Elena Martinescu, a researcher from King’s College London who studies workplace gossip told NPR, “Gossip allows people to keep track of what’s going on and helps form social alliances with other people.” Martinescu also points out that, of course, it can backfire if negative, but that we’re hardwired to gossip from an evolutionary perspective since it gives us information that can help us protect ourselves.
Matrinescu’s own new research highlights another interesting benefit to gossiping. When people hear about gossip they are the target of, of course it can hurt, but it also leads to self-reflection and a quest to improve. Says the London College researcher: “We found that negative gossip makes people likely to repair the aspects of their behavior that they were criticized for.”
So it turns out a little dose of “the truth hurts” can heal. I’ve experienced that, where I heard from a little bird that my consistently showing up late to meetings was not appreciated by people working for me and was even seen as arrogant. Ouch. Point taken. I started working on it immediately.
I’d still recommend, though, having the courage to share negative tidbits directly with the person if it would be helpful for them to know. Giving negative feedback can be hard (especially to your boss), but in about 99 percent of the cases, I guarantee it will make you feel better about yourself than if you chose the lower road of negative gossip.
Either way, if you’re going to gossip, I say it’s better to spread what I call positive gossip.
Talk about your co-workers in an upbeat way. Share what you like about them with peers. Tell their boss why they’re so great to work with. Eventually, the gossip will make its way back to the protagonist of the story, and voila, you’ve just built a stronger bond with that person (in addition to strengthening the bonds they have with others). Isn’t that much more fun than channeling negative feedback to people without really giving it to them directly?
So chit-chat away, try to stay on the positive as much as you can, and watch the surprising benefits of gossip take bloom.