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The digital age has not been kind to office gossiping. (Jupiterimages/Jupiterimages)
The digital age has not been kind to office gossiping. (Jupiterimages/Jupiterimages)

Water-cooler gossip falls victim to digital revolution Add to ...

It’s been a jolly bad week for that most traditional of office pastimes – gossiping. First came a survey saying that Americans are exchanging 21 per cent less gossip around the water cooler than they were four years ago.

Then, a couple of days later, one of the world’s most rabid enemies of gossip, Ray Dalio, emerged as king of the hedgies, taking the crown from George Soros. Mr. Dalio is famous for forbidding staff of his Bridgewater fund from gossiping and has warned them: “If you talk behind people’s backs … you are called a slimy weasel.”

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Even without these (dodgy) surveys and doctrinaire hedge fund bosses, I had already noticed something big was happening. There is simply a lot less gossip than there used to be. At least at my place, whole weeks can pass without me hearing anything juicy at all.

You could say that this is a great thing, as it makes work more decent, more professional and more straightforward. But I think it’s a catastrophe. Being an experienced, even distinguished, slimy weasel myself, I’d put Mr. Dalio’s diktat differently: if you don’t talk behind people’s backs, you are a prig and a bore and not sufficiently interested in the human condition to have any chance of success in a people business. Gossip is the thing that unites us and, even in hard times, makes coming into the office a constant pleasure.

The reason that the art of tittle-tattle is dying out has nothing to do with us becoming nicer, as we are surely just as horrible as they always were. Nor is it to do with autocratic bosses forbidding it (which tends to have the opposite effect, anyway). It is simply because the way we work is changing and there are far fewer gossip opportunities in an average working day than there once were.

First, there has been the tragic decline of the lunch hour and the eclipse of the office cafeteria. When I joined the work force 30 years ago, the cafeteria was a temple to gossip, which was exchanged in a leisurely, convivial way over a plate of toad in the hole. Today for lunch I did what I tend to do when I don’t have a date, and slipped out alone for an egg sandwich, which I ate at my desk.

Virtual working is also a disaster for gossip. So is excessive working. The more people have to do, the less time they have for idle chatter. But far more than any of this, the thing that is killing the finest sort of gossip is the Internet: e-mail, Facebook and Twitter.

As every slimy weasel will tell you, there is an art to being a good gossip. The most important thing is for it to happen face-to-face. You need to be able to see the other person and watch their pupils dilating as juicy scraps of news are given and received. You must be able to laugh, whisper and speculate together.

All gifted gossipers possess three special skills. First, they have built up superb sources; second, they know how to tell a good story; and third, they have the self-restraint and judgment to stop before becoming too nasty. After all, the aim of the exercise is to leave the person you are talking to feeling titillated, not soiled.

The Internet ruins all of this. It is mechanical and brutal and faceless and unsatisfyingly random. And much of what passes for gossip online is about people you have never even heard of, so where’s the fun in that?

A perfect example of this was an e-mail forwarded to me – and to every other worker in the Western world – written by four spoilt ex-public school boys working at various City firms. They were organizing a trip to watch the rugby in Dubai and bragging about how rich their parents were and how they were going to cheat on their girlfriends.

As gossip, this fails every test. I don’t know any of the subjects, I don’t even really know the person who forwarded the e-mail to me. As I sat alone by my computer reading their stupid messages, I felt half-bored and half-lowered – less by the vulgarity of the e-mails but by the whole exercise. The scale of the damage done to this feckless foursome by the mass forwarding of their e-mails seems out of proportion to the stupidity of their messages.

The saddest thing of all is how little it takes to be a top modern gossiper. You don’t need contacts, you don’t need judgment and you certainly don’t need to know how to tell a good story. All you need is an index finger (or any firm object) so that you can press the forward button – or to click retweet on Twitter.

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