In the October 2008 edition of Scientific American Mind, social psychologist Prof. Frank T. McAndrew argues that "… gossip is a more complicated and socially important phenomenon than we think". It is, he says, a by-product of the psychology that evolved in prehistoric times to enable our ancestors to survive and thrive in their communities.
Viewing organizations as networks of conversations inevitably brings gossip into focus. And gossip, like other aspects of ‘small talk’, is often dismissed as an irrelevant or, worse still, destructive component of the ‘conversational mix’.
However, McAndrew identifies a number of positive aspects of gossip.
- the trust implicit in sharing gossip with another person
- the bonding effect of sharing secrets with others
- a means of learning the unwritten rules of social groups by helping to resolve ambiguities about cultural norms
- an efficient way of reminding group members about the importance of the group’s norms and values
- a way of deterring deviant behaviour and of punishing anyone who breaks established norms and values
- being one of the most straightforward ways we have for comparing ourselves socially with others.
In other words, he points out that gossip is part of our identity and "an essential part of what makes groups function as well as they do". From this perspective, he maintains that it would perhaps be more productive to view gossip as a social skill rather than a character flaw. The skill exists in knowing when, where, with whom and about whom to engage in the practice. Those who indulge in too much, indiscriminate gossiping are likely to earn themselves reputations as people who can’t be trusted. Whereas a refusal to become involved is, as McAndrew suggests, a short cut to social isolation.
"Successful gossiping," suggests McAndrew, "is about being a good team player and sharing key information with others in a way that will not be perceived as self-serving and about understanding when to keep your mouth shut." Gossiping is also, therefore, an expression of the political dynamics of organization.
More than this, though, I would argue that gossip provides an important lubricant for the everyday conversational interactions through which organizations function, outcomes emerge and results are achieved.