Heard it Through the Grapevine.

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.