Changing Standards

It seems sometimes almost quaint to tag gossip and gossiping as a bad thing. We live in the age of gossip. The proliferation of gossip about celebrities, from sports figures to movie stars to politicians, has increased by a startling degree in the past few decades, and I believe that has loosened the restraint on people’s tongues in many areas of life. The state of Princess Diana and Prince Charles’ marriage and her death, the drunk driving arrest of Mel Gibson, the page problem of former Florida U.S. Congressman Mark Foley, etc., etc.) – all have sparked obsessive media coverage.

Before the 1970s, almost none of this gossip would have been known by the public at large, let alone have graced the pages of a mainstream newspaper or magazine. The National Enquirer, among others, has changed the standards of journalism. Today, not only are we hit with gossip everywhere from the supermarket check-out line to the nightly news, we can almost count on it when we open our email.

Just how quickly have things changed about our attitudes toward gossip? If you go back not too very long ago, to the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, one thing stands out – his personal life was not a primary subject for the media. For example, a number of his biographers have written extensively about his relationship with the “tall, blonde secretary,” a relationship which seemingly continued sporadically in one fashion or another over several decades. But although the affair was hardly unknown around Washington and reported on occasionally in the media, it certainly never became the pulsating, 24-hour, seven-day-a-week news phenomenon seen in the case of President Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky. That relationship, though it had little to do with the genuine issues of the day, quickly dominated media airtime and pages and spawned endless political analysis.

Prominent presidential historian Doris Kerns Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize winner in history, put it eloquently in a keynote lecture at Kansas State University in 1997:

"Just imagine what the modern media would have made of the Roosevelt White House. The secretary in love with her boss, a woman reporter in love with Eleanor…Prime Minister (Winston Churchill) drinking much of the day. And yet, fortunately, because there was an unwritten rule that the private lives of our public figures were relevant only if they had a direct impact on their leadership, these unconventional relationships were allowed to flourish. How I wish we could return to that standard today, for I have no doubt that many of our best people are unwilling to enter public life for fear of the unnecessary intrusion into their private lives."

Does gossip hurt? How many of us, seeing how the private lives of political figures are subject to the most intense scrutiny and the most insidious interpretations, are willing to run for public office?


Ignore Gossip?

My primary interest in the study of gossip is focused on its impact on organizational effectiveness. More specifically, my primary research and writing interests are on what it takes to make work a great place to be (www.makingworkagreatplacetobe.com). The important question, then, relates to the impact of gossip on creating a workplace that attracts employees.

It is easy to consider gossip unworthy of serious attention. Or, one can see most gossip as benign and of having little impact on the affect of the workplace. After all, if it was that important, they would have given a course on it in business school, right? But, how does gossip, particularly its dark side, contribute to making a great workplace? It can't, and ignoring gossip allows it to take on a life of its own, consuming and inflaming office communications. If unchecked, it can and will overwhelm all other forms of interaction, and waste considerable employee time. I have seen it turn an atmosphere toxic almost overnight.

We know unchecked gossip decreases job satisfaction. No one ever puts on a job application that they seek to work in a poisonous atmosphere, obviously. A constant barrage of gossip makes people lose sight of their primary mission. It clearly can decrease productivity, impair morale and markedly effect relations between employees. It can lead excellent employees to seek new jobs, wasting their experience and the valuable training time invested in them. It is not out-of-the-question for it to lead to lawsuits. It fosters distrust and insecurity. It damages careers.


Male Gossip (continued)

In the blog posted yesterday, I began to look at the topic of male gossip. I argued that men are guilty of engaging in destructive gossip but frequently it involves subjects that we do not traditionally link to gossip; subject like business and religion. Of course, men are not immune to the pleasures of a juicy tidbit. It’s just that men frequently label it with by different words, giving it the aura of greater legitimacy.

Witness the sports page. Certainly, part of that section is devoted to a recitation of yesterday’s game, but a great deal of it is made up of endless speculation about who is in, who may be pitching, replacing the star, who will sign with what team, who might be injured, who is using steroids. Studies have shown that men are very interested in gossip that involves status; who is “in,” and who is “out,” who has authority, whether formal or informal. While celebrity driven-magazines aimed at women have exploded in recent years, so have specialized sporting magazines aimed at men that revel in insider information and “scoops.”

Two other related areas of great interest to men, one traditional and one cutting-edge, also traffic heavily in gossip: Politics and blogging, with its frequently accompanying medium, podcasting. And as any veteran of the Armed Services can attest to, the male-dominated military inspires endless speculation – i.e. gossip – about most everything.

And obviously, the financial industry on Wall Street thrives on gossip and rumor, from hints of lower-than-expected-earnings at a given company to what the Fed is planning to do with interest rates. In the business world, men like to call gossip by the oh-so-respectable sobriquet “networking.”


Male Gossip

One of the misperceptions about gossip is that it is subject dependent. By that I mean that gossiping always involves a certain type of subject such as sex, infidelity, divorce and other salacious matters. There is, however, a growing body of feminist literature that would challenge this perspective.

Basically the argument is that for thousands of years what women typically talk about is seen as subjects for gossiping while what men usually talk about is not viewed as involving gossip (this is also divided by the connotation of good communication versus bad communication and you can guess where the connotations lie). Women discuss the details of the lives of family and friends. Men talk about politics, religion and business. Traditionally, chatting about family and friends is viewed as gossip. Talking about government or business is obviously not gossip but rather serious “male” interaction.

But, can not much of what is called male interaction also be classified as gossip? For example, a great deal has been written about conspiracy theorists. Are not most conspiracy interactions that occur over the Internet no more than gossip? Are not the main purveyors of this gossip male? And, does not this gossip have a substantially harmful effect on our society? I point you the reader to a recent article I read called, “Highway to Hell” http://www.newsweek.com/id/73372. Think about male gossip when you read this article.


Jewish Teaching on Gossip

I have previously taken a quick peek at how Christians and Muslims view gossiping. The Jewish religion sets forth a similar prohibition against the act of gossiping. The word gossip in Hebrew is lashon hara. Its literal translation is the “evil tongue.” Jewish teaching holds that gossip is wrong even if it is true and spread with out malice. The Chefetz Chaim lists a whopping 31 commandments that may be violated when a person passes on or listens to gossip, including "You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people" (Leviticus 19:15-16). To live the faith takes the courage to say when confronted with gossip: “I can’t and I won’t listen to this.”

To passively listen to gossip is as bad a transgression in Jewish teachings as being the one who spreads the gossip. Rabbi Dr. Aher Meir, of the JCT Center for Business Ethics, says in an article for the Jewish Ethicist (online) that Jewish sages hold that gossip kills three: the teller, the listener and the subject. It doesn’t have to be a false or slanderous story; as long as the subject of the report would prefer not to have information known, it is gossip and not fit for further dissemination.

Meir concedes it can be difficult to avoid gossip in an office; doing so can damage someone’s position professional and socially – even leading to the extent he or she might actually be ostracized. But that is the price that must be paid, he says, quoting Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaCohen, the Chefetz Chaim, in a “classic work” on the topic: “Even if refraining from slander will cause a person to lose his job, he has no choice but to fulfill the Torah’s mandate.” It’s also possible, Meir said, that setting a good example can cause other workers “to draw inspiration and courage from your example and also limit their tale bearing.”


Share Examples

Some time ago and I created a web site www.makingworkabetterplacetobe.com. The purpose of the web site was to promote ideas that would make work a more attractive and productive place for employees. Part of my interest in creating and sustaining a blog around the topic of gossip reflects the corrosive impact of gossiping on the workplace; malicious gossip does not create an attractive workplace. In the recent past I have encountered a number of gossiping incidents in different workplaces that had a devastating effect on relationships and morale. Many times I’ve been asked the question, “How do you keep this from happening?” This blog is in part a response to that question.

I intend to continue to share my ideas related to gossip and its impact on the workplace through this blog. Increasingly I intend to provide suggestions on how to control the dark side of gossip and how to minimize the negative impact from gossiping behavior. As a reader of this blog, you can help. Please respond with personal examples of destructive gossip from where you work and any efforts, successful or not, that have been attempted to deal with the gosiip. Be clear as to how the gossip created harm either to employees, relationships or productivity. Since the point would be to share your examples with a broader audience, write the example in a fashion that keeps the place of work anonymous.

Thank you in advance for participating in this activity.


Islam and Gossip

In the last blog I focused on Christianity and gossip. What about Islam? "Do not spy nor let some of you backbite others. Does one of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? As this verse from the Qur'an indicates (049.012), yet another major faith abhors gossiping, in the strongest possible terms. Central to the faith is the concept of universal brotherhood - you should treat every other man like your brother. So when you gossip about another, you are, in effect, defying those bonds of brotherhood.

One recent book, “Gossip & Its Adverse Effects on the Muslim Community,” covers the topic. The book examines what its publisher calls “Ghibah” in its excellent preface. “Ghibah” isn’t an easy term to translate- there is no single equivalent word in English, although “gossip” comes closest initially. Ghibah is an interesting, all encompassing word that gives a clue to feeling of Islam on the concept - it also includes back-biting, slandering and scandal-mongering.

As the book’s publisher says: “Whichever word we chose, we cannot escape from the fact that Ghibah affects us all. We have all been victims and - we must be honest - we have all been guilty of this sin. But it is not a matter to be taken lightly - gossip can wreck lives and shatter communities. If we seek to unite as Muslims, we must combat Ghibah. Islam is a practical faith which recognizes the human conditions and offers achievable remedies to the problems that beset us. Every human society faces the problem of gossip, and Islam shows us how to tackle it in a sensible and humane manner. (Interestingly enough, it is not assumed to be solely a female preserve, as popular notions would have us believe!)”


Religion and Gossip

Part of my research into the subject of gossip includes a review of what the great religions have said about the act of gossiping. Gossiping is generally associated with slander and back-biting and universally condemned by all religions.

Christianity is a good example with prohibitions against gossip go back millennia in the faith. These prohibitions are interwoven into the teachings of many of the great Christian thinkers. In the Apostle Paul’s writing, gossiping is sin, akin to other misdeeds as grave as greed, murder and slander. In his famous letter to the Romans, he writes “They are gossips…they know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die.” Whew – that’s perhaps a bit heavier a punishment than we might prescribe, though it does neatly illustrate the passion Paul felt toward the transgression.

Elsewhere, the Bible has several references to gossip, perhaps the most on-point being: “You shall not go about as a slanderer." (Lev. 19-16), “This is the sort of gossip which tarnishes reputations, divulges secrets,” (Proverbs 20:19), “reignites quarrels” (26:20-26), and “leaves friendships in ruins.” (16:27-28).

What is particularly important to emphasize is that the great religions see gossiping as a transgression on the same level as other serious wrong doing. Thus, while gossiping tends to focus on the sins of the others, the act of doing gossip is viewed as a deadly sin similar to what is being talked about.


Women and Gossip

Let’s face it: our culture isn’t filled with stories about how much men gossip. All the phrases or sayings in our language reflect the image of women as gossipers. The words are so easy to call up - cat, tattler, prattler. Obviously, none of the images attached to the notion of women as gossips are particularly flattering or admiring. Quite the opposite, in fact. These stereotypes, which are deeply rooted in our culture, are always pejorative or negative. “She’s a gossip” is an epithet that’s been hurled at women for time immemorial, and a misapprehension that continues on to this day.

A top level manager was recently over heard to say that it bothered him to see two females walking down a hallway and talking together, because he was so convinced they invariably were engaged in some form of gossip. (Of course, he didn’t have the slightest clue what they might be talking about.) And it’s no secret that in more rigidly patriarchal societies, those in authority, the men, have an even greater tendency to label much of the communication that occurs between women as mere “gossip.” This downplays and even denigrates the significance of what women say to one another, reinforcing the superiority of male communication (women talk about people and relationships while men talk about politics, work and sports). This, naturally, can encourage women themselves to downplay their interactions and communication.

Since my interests focus on the destructive side of gossip, the fact that women may spend more time than men talking about every day occurrences and relationships is not particularly significant. I have found no research evidence that shows women to be guiltier of malicious gossip then men. More importantly, there is no indication that I have found that indicates malicious gossip from a woman to be more destructive than malicious gossip from a man.


Stopping Gossip

To the extent gossiping is a learned behavior, just like any other behavior, it can be changed. For starters, what must be understood is that there are different levels of gossip. Strangers can certainly gossip together – who hasn’t swapped stories with an airplane seatmate about a nutty co-worker or an accounting unit that just can’t seem to get it together? This kind of gossip causes less harm than other forms of the problem, because it’s on a much less intimate basis then, say, a team of co-workers who have worked together for five year. When people who work closely together gossip, and when that gossip turns ugly, the harm and pain it causes can be extreme.

The truth is its part of the human condition, as much as kindness and hatred. We are, after all, social beings where human contact is a necessary ingredient to our well being. We don’t, and will never, have the capacity to completely stop gossip. What we can do is teach people how to deal with gossip – particularly the maliciousness of it. Workable strategies do exist, which can stem the toxic tide without plunging a workplace into totalitarianism. It’s a mistake to say “We’re going to act bigger than it and simply ignore it.” Rather, the critical question concerns what we are going to substitute for malicious gossip. That is a question that I will continue to explore on this blog.