Gossip is an enigma. It can be a tool for building or destroying reputations, or it can be the cohesive glue that holds a group together. It may even be the instrument used to banish an individual from a group entirely. It is only since the early 1990s or so that psychologists and other social scientists have turned their attention toward the study of gossip, partially because it is difficult to define exactly what it is. Most researchers agree that the practice involves talk about people who are not present, and that this talk is relaxed, informal, and entertaining. Typically, the topic of conversation also concerns information that we can make moral judgments about. When gossip is discussed seriously, the goal usually is to suppress its frequency in an attempt to avoid the undeniably harmful effects it can have in work groups and other social networks. Although most gossip is not mean-spirited or spiteful, it is this nasty side of gossip that usually overshadows the more benign ways in which it functions in organizations. This article will organize the literature on workplace gossip by examining the theoretical perspectives taken by researchers who study gossip, by making a distinction between “rumors” and “gossip,” and by exploring both the positive and negative roles played by gossip in organizational life. Attention will also be paid to the strategies employed by organizations to manage rumors and gossip.
Popular Sources of Information About Gossip
Gossip is a topic of great interest to the average “person on the street.” Consequently, much has appeared about gossip both in print and Internet sources. Most popular writing on the subject is purely opinion based and is intended for entertainment. There are, however, a number of works intended for a lay audience that are firmly grounded in scholarship and that provide an easy-reading introduction to the world of gossip research. Some of these are books, such as Collins 1998, DiFonzo 2008, Epstein 2011, and Whitfield 2012; two are articles from popular magazines, McAndrew 2008; McAndrew 2016; and the rest include a documentary film, a radio broadcast, and an online blog. Most of these sources devote significant attention to the role played by gossip in the workplace.
Bowlby, Chris, prod. “Gossip.” The Why Factor. British Broadcasting Company (BBC) World Service, 25 August 2014.
This is an entertaining, approximately eighteen-minute-long BBC Radio program devoted to the topic of gossip, featuring interviews with a series of experts on gossip. The experts include many of the leading academic gossip researchers. The show is available online in its entirety.
Collins, Gail. Scorpion Tongues: The Irresistible History of Gossip in American Politics. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998.
A historical account of the role played by gossip in American social life. The emphasis is on the impact of gossip on American politics, but the role played by gossip in the life of organizations is also featured throughout the book.
DiFonzo, Nicholas. The Watercooler Effect. New York: Avery, 2008.
This is a popular book written by one of the pioneering scholars of rumors in the workplace. The book provides an accessible discussion of the dynamics of rumors in organizations, with an emphasis on work organizations.
Epstein, Joseph. Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.
A witty account of the history of gossip, by a well-known writer. Epstein is not a scientist, and most of his book is not based on empirical social science research. However, there is just enough of it to make this a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the topic of gossip.
McAndrew, Frank T. “Can Gossip be Good?” Scientific American Mind 19.5 (2008): 26–33.
This is an accessible popular magazine article devoted to making the case that gossip plays a more positive role in social life than is usually thought. A discussion of workplace gossip is featured prominently in the article. A good source for a first read on gossip.
McAndrew, Frank T. “Gossip is a Social Skill—Not a Character Flaw.” Conversation (20 January 2016).
This article appeared in more than a dozen online popular news outlets, including Time, the New Republic, the Conversation, and the Huffington Post. The author argues that the negative reputation of gossip overshadows the beneficial functions that it serves, and he also argues that the ability to gossip well is a valuable social skill.
“The Real Dirt on Gossip.” Doc Zone. Canadian Broadcasting (22 October 2012).
This documentary features interviews with academic gossip researchers, journalists working in the celebrity gossip business, and everyday people. There are several case studies of how gossip in the workplace has been dealt with by managers. Excerpts are available online, and the full documentary can be ordered from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Walls, Jeannette. Dish: How Gossip Became the News and the News Became Just Another Show. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.
This popular account of gossip focuses on its role in popular American culture, with special attention paid to how the advent of the Internet and social media has changed the dynamics of gossip in everyday life.
Whitfield, John. People Will Talk: The Surprising Science of Reputation. New York: John Wiley, 2012.
A well-written popular book on the importance of managing one’s social reputation, with special attention paid to the role played by gossip as a tool for doing so.
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