Susan Pinker is a psychologist and columnist whose most recent book, The Village Effect, explores the science of social interaction.
After more than two years of remote work, white collar employees have grown very comfortable doing their jobs from home. We all got the hang of videoconferencing at the kitchen table while small children and pets wander in and out of the Zoom frame. The commute to work, once the better part of an hour, has become a 30-second walk down the hall. We’re saving money on transit and parking, and the two extra hours gained makes us all feel more productive. So why go back to the office?
The answer, in a word, is gossip. Getting the lowdown on your co-workers is one of the intangible, non-fungible pleasures of working in a real office populated with real people. Sure, you can get bits and pieces of information through direct messaging, Slack and phone calls, but informal face-to-face conversation is best for finding out what’s really happening. If you didn’t share the same space, how would you know that a managerial position posted by the company is already earmarked for Angie from sales, or which new hire is getting paid more than you – to do exactly the same job?
I recently heard about a more salacious bit of gossip that engulfed the workplace of a midsized marketing firm several years ago, in prepandemic times. The break room and division meetings were abuzz with chatter about an affair between the chief executive and a female employee. The news was first dished out on the workplace site Glassdoor, and soon, everyone was talking about it in the office, mostly sharing a fascination with the forbidden nature of the liaison.
Not only was a senior executive in a romantic relationship with someone who reported to him, but he was also a married man with children. Meanwhile, the female staff member was engaged – to the person who posted the details of the affair on Glassdoor. One employee at the company, a devout Christian, was so horrified by the CEO’s behaviour that she resigned.
It seems like it was simply a corrosive workplace incident, but in fact, there was an upside. A friend, who worked at the company as a senior market research executive, recounted that the gossip around the affair resulted in years of entertainment for employees.
Talking about the couple gave the group a common interest that was unique, one that handily obviated the expectation that team members would make small talk about themselves. It brought the team closer together, said the marketing executive, adding that rumours of a sexual nature tended to get the most oxygen at her workplace. My view is that the more the senior management tighten the screws on employees, by shortening timelines and micromanaging, for example, the greater the staff’s need to release the tension by gossiping about the higher-ups. But more about social hierarchies in a moment.
Gossip is so taboo that almost everyone I approached for this article – including the marketing executive – would only talk to me off-the-record. And they are right to be circumspect. Gossip often traffics in negative rumours about someone who is, of course, not present to add their say. So, in one way, gossip deserves its bad rap. Indeed, many religions expressly forbid gossip – perhaps because it takes the veil off the powers that be – while many believers harshly judge those who choose to partake.
Let’s put aside moral outrage for an instant to consider how often gossip is actually true. In the early 2000s psychologists Nicholas DiFonzo and Prashant Bordia collected rumours from about 300 businesses, and then checked their accuracy. The rumours ranged from who was going to be promoted, who was planning to leave the company and who would be let go; it was all verifiable in-house chatter. The researchers discovered that office gossip was true 80 per cent to 100 per cent of the time.
These findings confirm decades of studies on rumours that circulated within the U.S. military. Secret, meaty nuggets, such as who was going to be deployed, and when and where that would happen, were often bandied about before any official had publicly revealed any plans. In fact, “every major operation, change of station, and important administrative change was accurately reported by rumour before any official announcement had been made,” wrote cognitive scientist Hugo Mercier, who described this research in his 2020 book, Not Born Yesterday. “These rumours were uncannily correct.”
So, office gossip is largely true, and most people would agree that it’s a cathartic diversion from the everyday slog. Yet speculating about colleagues is not just a fluffy form of entertainment, nor is it a uniquely female pastime. Like most forms of social contact, it serves a vital purpose. Gossip binds a group together, all while implicitly enforcing its social rules. The blah-blah before and after meetings lets everyone know that the talk might be about your colleague right now. But if you violate a norm, you’ll be next. And if you’re a high-ranking person in the organization, that gossipy chatter will likely take you down a notch or two at the same time.
Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, thinks that reining in the higher-ups is one of the primary purposes of gossip. “Think about the hierarchy dimension,” he told me on a Zoom call. “Newspaper gossip columns are about high-powered individuals. Maybe their character is questionable. Gossip makes sure that people who have a lot of influence behave well.” Ah, I say. Gossip functions like a court jester, who says things about the aristocracy that the common folk dare not say. Prof. Keltner nodded, adding that these days the role of jester might also be played by late night talk show hosts, such as Stephen Colbert or Trevor Noah.
I contacted Prof. Keltner because he has done research on the virtues of gossip for at least a decade. His view, based on empirical data that he collected with University of Toronto’s Matthew Feinberg and other team members, is that gossip is a self-regulating tool that groups use to root out bad actors. Passing on information about cheaters, for example, is a generous act that can protect the vulnerable. This conclusion rings true to me. When I was a young and, I admit, vulnerable psychology professor, an older, wiser colleague took me under her wing. She warned me about lecherous colleagues in the department and gossiped lightly about others whose endless leaves of absence, year after year, created temporary openings to teach their classes but would mean that tenure, at least for me, would be a mirage.
This type of gossip was a good deed that allowed me to plan my next move. In academic jargon it’s called a prosocial act, in part because doing it makes everyone feel better than they did before. And gossip makes people behave better, too. “There are two ways to co-operate,” Prof. Keltner told me. “One is to make people feel good about other people. The other is to constrain them, as in ‘if I think I’m being watched and I know people are gossiping about me, I’ll behave better.’” Plus, we love to gossip and we indulge our cravings once or twice a day, he told me. “People care enormously about their reputations. It’s one of the deepest cravings we have. And once you’re aware of that, you clean up your act.”
Finally, I would be remiss if I left out the British evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, who suggested that gossip is the reason we humans developed our big brains in the first place. In his 1996 book Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, and again in his more recent book, Friends, Prof. Dunbar argues that humans evolved big forebrains in order to shoot the breeze about who is doing what with whom. We tell stories – or some would say we tell tales – that bring us together. Our ancestors, non-human primates such as baboons and chimps, groom each other to establish mutual trust. That is, they methodically comb through each other’s fur in order to pick out the nits – and then eat them. This practice releases feel-good hormones in both the groomer and groomee. But humans don’t do that. They gossip instead.
Prof. Dunbar writes: “The conventional view is that language evolved to enable males to do things like coordinate hunts more effectively. This is the ‘there’s a herd of bison down by the lake’ view of language. An alternative view might be that language evolved to enable the exchange of highfalutin stories about the supernatural or the tribe’s origins. The hypothesis I am proposing is diametrically opposed to ideas like these. In a nutshell, I am suggesting that language evolved to allow us to gossip.”
When Prof. Dunbar and one of his fellow researchers, Anna Marriott, analyzed people’s conversations to find out what people really talked about when they gossip, they found that negative comments made up only 5 per cent of their conversation time. Another 5 per cent was devoted to exchanging advice about social conundrums. And the rest, or 90 per cent of the time, was spent chewing the fat in a general sort of way, with the time split between talking about other people, and talking about themselves.
So go ahead. Spend some time catching up with your colleagues at the office. It will feel good to get out of the house. And it will feel even better to find out who is doing what and with whom.
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