[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 wasnt 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
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
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
"Office gossip can be a form of reputational warfare," Dr. Hallett
says. "Its like informal gossip, but its 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
shes-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 groups gossip on to the students academic
difficulties and weird behavior ("Hes 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
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
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
"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.
"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 "Isnt 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 doesnt 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, its one of the tactics that distinguishes office gossip from
When the going gets tough, when the gossip gets mean, you always have one
reliable escape line: "Dont we have some work to do here?"
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