by Vicki Larson
About once a week or so, a coworker and I walk the loop near our office at lunch hour. We chat about the usual things — our kids, our partners, what we’re reading — as we make our way past the wild turkeys and deer, and munching on sun-kissed blackberries when they’re in season. But sometimes we talk about work.
As many conversations go about work, it’s not always pretty.
In a world that considers gossip as entertainment — maybe even news — our observations on the personalities and quirks of our bosses and co-workers, and company shenanigans are rather tame. Nothing is ever TMZ- or Perez Hilton-worthy, but we can dish with the best of them.
Is that wrong?
Some recent studies coming out of Indiana University — which may be having a little gossip issue of its own — suggest it might be.
For two years, sociologists from the university followed the conversations of a Midwest middle school’s teachers after there was a change in administrators. Not surprisingly, there was a lot more negativity going on than “Kumbaya” singing.
Earlier studies of middle-schoolers themselves at a different Midwestern school found similar results; dishing often promotes dissing.
None of us wants to be known as the office busybody, always poking his or her nose in other people’s business and blabbing about it. At the same time, how many of us walk away from a juicy tidbit? Exactly, and even fewer of us are able to keep that tidbit to ourselves. Wasn’t it Ben Franklin who said, “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead”?
Yet, gossip has served us well since prehistoric times, when it helped ensure survival of the fittest. It’s hard-wired in us, although one could say the way we gossip nowadays is a far cry from the caveman days when it was used to find scare resources, like a mate or food — unless they had their version of Lindsay Lohan back then. But as Timothy Hallett, one of the Indiana University researchers, says, getting hung up on whether gossip is good or bad is meaningless because people have always gossiped and always will. “A lot depends on perspective," he says.
Well, doh! It can be a bonding thing or a way to deal with our work frustrations and fears, especially when so many companies have been downsizing — that pretty much describes the kind of gossip my coworker and I share. Or it could make you feel like an outsider or worse if you’re the target of the gossip.
Which, many years ago, I was. It was ugly.
I was in my early 20s, relatively new in my book-publishing career, in the midst of a divorce, and one of the company executives had a somewhat obvious crush on me — at least obvious enough for my two immediate supervisors, both women, to notice.
They began asking me inappropriate questions under the guise of “gal talk,” and dropping teasing comments although nothing was happening between the executive and me. Suddenly, my personal life — real and (mostly) imagined — became fodder for their whispered conversations and wink-wink smiles. Because I was too young and inexperienced to know how to deal with it — harassment wasn’t even in my vocabulary — I did the only thing that made sense to me; I tried to distance myself from them as much as possible.
It worked I guess, but it also must have frustrated them because they then started complaining about how I handled my work — I was too “nice” to my clients, even though I was the top performer in the department.
All of which made me feel miserable, not just emotionally but physically. More often than not, I started my day with a headache or a stomachache or both.
Eventually, I quit. And — surprise — the headaches and stomachaches went away. And because that executive really was kind of cute, he and I began dating. Fortunately, he had left the company, too, months before I did. As a plus, he was someone with whom I could share — or is that gossip? — details about those bosses and “get” it.
So, you’d think having gone through an experience like that, I would never gossip about anyone ever again. Well, it’s pretty obvious that on those walks with my coworker — or at a girls’ night out with my friends — I haven’t quite taken that to heart.
But there’s mean-spirited gossip, like my former bosses’, and there’s camaraderie gossip; I would never feel comfortable saying something that would hurt a person or that I couldn’t say to his or her face.
Gossip is a social skill, and we all do it to a certain extent. It’s just that some can do it better than others.
So, of course, it was through industry gossip that I heard, years after I left that book publisher, that my two former bosses had been moved from the Upper East Side New York City office to warehouses somewhere in the Midwest — in the publishing world, the equivalent of being banished to Siberia.
I don’t enjoy seeing others in pain, but I took a certain pleasure in hearing that juicy tidbit and passing it on.
Just don’t say that you heard it from me.