Spilling Secrets: The Pros and Cons of Gossip at Work

August is back-to-school time, which for many in academia means a return to the office setting after time away, meeting new coworkers and reconnecting with old. Thus, the beginning of the school year is the perfect time for one of our favorite office activities: gossip.

Gossip – even the term alone seems to conjure negative associations. We think of people who make judgments behind others’ backs, those who spread nasty rumors and “trashy” tabloids like the National Enquirer, Us Weekly or gossip website TMZ, which publish lurid stories about celebrities’ personal lives. But if we’re honest with ourselves, not one of us out there can say we’ve never shared information about someone we know behind his or her back – or delighted in hearing a juicy tidbit about an acquaintance or coworker. So, is gossip really all that bad? Are we terrible people?

According to Dr. Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College and columnist at Psychology Today who has spent years studying gossip, the answer is no. McAndrew, who specializes in evolutionary psychology, argues that the human brain is hardwired to gossip – it’s a natural behavior that we couldn’t avoid even if we tried.

Full disclosure: Frank McAndrew is actually my dad, and so when we came up with proFmagazine’s summer “secrets” theme, I immediately knew that his research in this area would be a great topic of discussion. Because we at proFmagazine focus on women mentoring and empowering one another, I was curious about the positive aspects of gossip that I had heard him speak about. I spoke with Dr. McAndrew about how gossip fits into the field of evolutionary psychology, how it can help us and hurt us, and what’s behind the stereotype of the gossiping woman.

proF: As a psychologist, how did you get interested in gossip as a topic of study?

FM: Years ago, I was at the grocery store standing in a long line and I was looking at the tabloids. I started wondering, “Who buys all this stuff? Why do we care about all these people we’re never going to meet?” So I started thinking about this question, and being a professor what you do is go to the literature and see what people have to say about this. And I was absolutely blown away that there were no studies on gossip. Psychologists had pretty much completely ignored this topic. And so I got interested in what kind of gossip we’re interested in and about what kinds of people, and one of my students at the time was looking for a topic for an honors project, so we did the first study together and that kind of got the ball rolling.

proF: How does gossip fit into evolutionary psychology, and what kinds of studies have you done in this area?

FM: We live in the 21st century, but we still have a stone-age mind, and that’s why the field is fun. Because I was already becoming an evolutionary psychologist, I knew that if this gossip thing is already human nature, then we should be able to make some predictions. If in fact gossip has evolved to become a useful tool, I ought to be able to predict who we would be interested in. But no one had done any studies on that.

My first experiments were to present people with different kinds of scenarios, and sometimes I used real gossip stories from tabloids about movie stars and asked people to just rank which one was most interesting – which ones do you want to read more about? And sometimes I gave people little scenarios and asked them: given this information, how interested would you be in it depending on which one of these people it was about? And then the choices are something like a same-sex friend, a rival, a romantic partner, an important person. And it fell into place just as we expected. People like tabloid stories about movie stars of their same sex and about their same age. So, one study leads to another then.

proF: You’ve written that gossip is “a byproduct of the prehistoric brain.” Can you explain what this means? How did our prehistoric ancestors use gossip?

FM: From everything we can tell, our ancestors lived their lives in very small groups of about 150 or 200 people. To be successful in that environment, you had to be able to know what was going on with everyone else. You had to know who was sleeping with who, you had to know who had powerful allies and who didn’t, you had to know who had access to resources and who didn’t. And people who were good at keeping up with other people did better. They were better at managing their relationships, and they were better at attracting and holding mates. Those of us that are around today, then, are the descendants of busybodies. People who didn’t care about that stuff – those genes are gone. So, a craving for gossip is part of human nature the same way any of our other cravings are, because our cravings are a way to keep us alive and reproducing.

proF: Gossip is often thought to be something women do much more than men. Do evolutionary psychologists believe there is any truth behind this stereotype, and where does it come from?

FM: Many studies have shown that men and women gossip differently. Men need to keep up with whatever men are doing, because other men are their competitors. Women are the same way. So, to say that women gossip and men don’t is wrong. But it is true that women tend to use gossip in a more negative, aggressive way than men do. It’s not that women are more aggressive than men, it’s just that they aggress differently. A man is much more likely to go up and punch another guy in the face or [in the case of our prehistoric ancestors] hit him with a club. A woman, on the other hand, ostracizes a rival or spreads misinformation about her. It’s called indirect aggression or relational aggression, and in fact all the evidence shows that women are more likely to do this than men.

They also tend to gossip about different things. Men are more likely to talk about what other men are up to in terms of careers or achievements and money, that sort of thing. Women are much more likely to discuss relationships. Everybody likes gossip, and everybody gossips, but women do have a tendency to deploy it as a weapon more quickly than men do. And in the workplace, that might be why we tend to think of it as a more female problem than male problem.

proF: So clearly gossip can be used as a weapon to hurt others, but you also argue that it is a highly evolved social skill. Can you explain how it can help us socially?

FM: I think it’s impossible to not gossip. You might as well ask people to stop breathing. So, given that this is something that is going to happen, if we talk about work groups for example, there are a lot of benefits. First of all, it’s one of the things that makes people good citizens. If you’re tempted to slack off or not do your share of the work, knowing that people are monitoring your reputation and will talk about you badly if you do that keeps you in line. It helps you be a good citizen. But gossip is also a way of building morale and cohesiveness. If I share some dicey bit of gossip with you, this is a sign of trust. What I’m saying is I trust you with this information, and I don’t think you’ll use it in any way that’s going to cause trouble for me. And that bonds people together.

If you refuse to be part of the gossip network, what you’re really saying to your coworkers is “I don’t want to be one of you. I’m not interested. I don’t trust you.” And that’s not something that’s going to endear you to your coworkers. It also helps socialize people in the workplace. If you get a new job, a lot of times people don’t tell you things like how formally you should dress, is it okay to leave at exactly five o’clock, can you call your boss by his or her first name. And by listening to people gossip about others, you learn from their experiences. When somebody leaves early and you hear what is said about them, you make a mental note: don’t leave early. It’s the same when you hear people talk about the way somebody has dressed for work. And so new people coming in figure out how to be a member of the group from the gossip. [For various studies on this, see the links in this article.]

proF: Why do you think people have such negative associations with gossip, despite its benefits?

FM: The problem with the word “gossip” is that right away people think about the negative stuff. They think about the vicious, backstabbing, reputation-destroying stuff. But whenever you’re talking about someone who isn’t there, you’re gossiping. And it’s not always bad stuff. If I’m asking, “Do you think Joe’s going to get that promotion?” That isn’t bad stuff about Joe, but it’s still gossip.

The topics that people like to gossip about are usually ones they can make moral judgments about – if it has to do with the person’s character or dependability. Not always, but usually this is the most interesting gossip. That’s why we love catching people in hypocrisy, like the ministers who are caught with a prostitute ­– people who are projecting the opposite of what they do in the world. This really tells us something about their character.

proF: For women who work in higher ed., do you believe the act of gossiping can be beneficial? Can gossip play a role in women mentoring and helping each other in the workplace, or is it more likely to have a negative impact on women’s solidarity?

FM: Yes, gossip can [play a role in women helping each other]. But it some ways you’re running into a nasty part of human nature, because let’s face it: the higher ed. workplace is a very competitive environment in many cases, and these women coworkers that you need to cooperate and work with may also be your competitors when it comes to who gets that next promotion, or who gets that office when it opens up. So, you have to walk a fine line between building a team and an alliance with these other women, but at the same time keeping very close tabs on them, because your own self-interests and their interests may not always be the same. And so that’s one of the reasons why this is so difficult.

That’s where the social skill comes in. You don’t get in trouble for being a gossip; you get in trouble for being a bad gossip. People who are good at it are the people who know just when to share information and with whom to share information. And they’re usually very popular people because you think they know things, and you trust them to use information in a beneficial way. The people that we think of as “bad gossips” are the ones who just kind of blab everything they know to anybody, or they’re so transparently gossiping in a selfish way to try to advance their own interests that nobody wants to have anything to do with them.

proF: What kind of gossip, then, might be considered skillful – the kind that builds relationships? Does gossiping about bosses or higher-ups with one’s coworkers fall into this category?

FM: Yes, because there you’re sharing information about someone who you’re all interested in for the same reasons. And we’re most interested in gossip that we can use. So that’s why we usually like dirt on higher ups or competitors because that stuff we can use to get ahead. The example I often use going back to our caveman days is: if I’m a caveman who’s in the middle of the pack when it comes to the food chain, and I found out that the most powerful guy just got another beautiful wife and just dragged home another mastodon for dinner, this isn’t interesting to me. But if I find out that that top caveman is in trouble with his wives, or just had a falling out with a powerful political ally, this is really interesting because maybe I can use this to my advantage in some way.

And so, when we’re talking about higher ups, finding out that they’ve won more honors or something is not really that interesting, but finding out that they’re got a drinking problem, or that they’re cheating on their wife, or whatever it might be, is interesting because that’s potentially useful information. Presumably we even like good information about people if it’s useful to us. So, if you find out your brother just won the lottery and has $100 million or your best friend is dating a movie star, this is interesting because you might be able to use it.

People always think of gossip as a negative thing – and it can be. It can be very disruptive in the workplace. But people overlook the fact that it’s an essential part of making the office function.

So next time you find yourself gossiping with your coworkers, remember that what you’re doing is human nature – but also remember to be skillful about it. Because though we can’t help being interested in gossip, we can use it in a way that focuses on bringing coworkers together rather than stabbing each other in the back.

Can you recall a time when gossiping has helped or hurt you in academia? Share with us!