[Offtopic] staffroom gossip

stephen at melbpc.org.au stephen at melbpc.org.au
Tue Nov 3 21:05:10 EST 2009

Perhaps of interest ..

Can You Believe How Mean Office Gossip Can Be? 

JOHN TIERNEY Published: November 2, 2009 (snipped)

Could adults gossiping in the office be more devious than the teenagers 
in "Gossip Girl"?

If you have a hard time believing this, then you must have skipped the 
latest issue of the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography .. enthnographers 
have just returned from the field with footage of a truly savage native 
ritual: teachers at an elementary school in the Midwest dishing about 
their principal behind her back. <http://jce.sagepub.com/current.dtl>

These are rare records of "gossip episodes," which have been the subject 
of a long-running theoretical debate among anthropologists and 

One side, the functionalist school, sees gossip as a useful tool for 
enforcing social rules and maintaining group solidarity. The other school 
sees gossip more as a hostile endeavor by individuals selfishly trying to 
advance their own interests.

But both schools have spent more time theorizing than observing gossipers 
in their natural habitats. 

The earlier studies found that once someone made a negative comment about 
a person who wasn’t there, the conversation would get meaner unless 
someone immediately defended the target. 

Otherwise, among both adults and teenagers, the insults would keep coming 
because there was so much social pressure to agree with the others. 

Consider, for instance, the cascade of insults recorded in the earlier 
study of middle-school gossip by Donna Eder and Janet Lynne Enke of 
Indiana University. 

In this cafeteria conversation, a group of eighth-grade girls in the 
cafeteria were discussing an overweight classmate whose breasts they 
considered too large for her age:

Penny: In choir that girl was sitting in front of us and we kept 
going, “Moo.”

Karen: We were going, “Come here, cow; come here, cow.” 

Bonnie: I know. She is one. 

Penny: She looks like a big fat cow.

Julie: Who is that?

Bonnie: That girl on the basketball team.

Penny: That big red-headed cow.

Julie: Oh, yeah. I know. She is a cow.

The new study found that gossip in the workplace also tended to be 
overwhelmingly negative, but the insults were more subtle and the 
conversations less predictable, says Tim Hallett, a sociologist at 
Indiana University.

"Office gossip can be a form of reputational warfare," Dr. Hallett 
says. "It’s like informal gossip, but it’s richer and more elaborate. 
There are more layers to it because people practice indirectness and 
avoidance. People are more cautious because they know they can lose not 
just a friendship, but a job."

During two years studying the group dynamics at a Midwestern elementary 
school, which allowed him access on condition of anonymity, Dr. Hallett 
found that the teachers became so comfortable with him and his camera 
that they would freely insult their bosses during one-on-one interviews. 

But at the teachers’ formal group meetings, where they knew that another 
teacher might report their insults to the principal, they were more 

Instead of making direct criticisms, they sometimes offered obliquely 
sarcastic comments to test the waters. 

They used another indirect tactic categorized as praise the predecessor, 
as in the meeting when a teacher fondly recalled a previous 
administration: "It was so calm, and you could teach. No one was 
constantly looking over your shoulder." The other teachers quickly 
agreed. No one explicitly called the current principal an authoritarian 
busybody, but that was the obvious implication.

Some teachers were especially adept at managing gossip. 

At one meeting, after someone complained about a student walking around 
with his hair shaped into horns, the group began blaming the lapse in 
discipline on the assistant principal. 

The gossip seemed to be going down the same nasty track as the teenagers’ 
she’s-such-a-cow episode until another teacher, an ally of the assistant 
principal, smoothly intervened. 

First, the teacher interrupted the attack by asking the name of the 
student with the horns. 

That deflected the group’s gossip on to the student’s academic 
difficulties and weird behavior ("He’s gotta frighten the little kids"). 

Then the teacher masterfully completed the rescue of the assistant 
principal by changing the topic entirely, reminding everyone of a 
different disciplinary issue that was the fault of a less popular 
administrator — the principal, who promptly became the new focus of the 
groups’ anger. 

The teachers’ gossip never got as blatantly mean as the teenage girls’ — 
no one was ever called a cow — but in some ways the effects were more 
widely felt. 

As teachers mocked the principal & complained about her being "stifling" 
and "hyper," the atmosphere got more poisonous. 

The principal felt that her authority was being undermined by gossip and 
retaliated against teachers she suspected (correctly) of criticizing her. 

Teachers and administrators fled the school, and the students’ test 
scores declined. 

"The gossip did serve to reinforce the teachers’ group solidarity, but in 
this case it was also a form of warfare that brought everyone down," Dr. 
Hallett says. 

"It was reminiscent of the old saying that gossip is a three-pronged 
tongue: it can hurt the speaker and the listener, as well as the target." 

Some bosses have tried turning the office into a "no-gossip zone," but 
Dr. Hallett says it is more realistic to try managing it. (If you have 
ideas for managing office gossip, suggest them at nytimes.com/tierneylab.)

If, say, an office rival seems poised to trash one of your absent allies, 
Dr. Hallett suggests you make a "pre-emptive positive evaluation." 

A quick "Isn’t she doing a great job?" might be enough to stop the attack.

If your rival tries persisting with indirect sarcasm — "Oh, real great 
job" — you can force the issue by calmly asking what that means. 

That simple question, a dare made in a pleasant voice, often silenced the 
sarcastic gossips observed by Dr. Hallett.

And if that doesn’t work, Dr. Hallett suggests you try an even simpler 
tactic that was used successfully at the teachers’ meetings — and that is 
available in any workplace anytime. 

In fact, it’s one of the tactics that distinguishes office gossip from 
nonoffice gossip. 

When the going gets tough, when the gossip gets mean, you always have one 
reliable escape line: "Don’t we have some work to do here?"



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