It can tear apart the fabric of a community, hamper productivity and even drive some to change jobs. But office gossip has its benefits.
For example, it can bring two rivals together. It’s a scenario that was played out on Sunday’s season finale of “Mad Men.” As Ginia Bellafante put it in her recap on The New York Times’ ArtsBeat blog, the moment inter-office competitors, Joan and Peggy, bonded over Don Draper’s engagement to his secretary, was simply lovable.
“It was great not only for the girl talk it produced and the rapprochement it signaled between the two women but because it punctuated the extent to which they are soul sisters in a sense: Each has had her ambitions and gone about them in different ways; each has been shafted by the big bad patriarchy,” writes Bellafante.
The series has long chronicled the challenges women faced in the 1960s workplace, and the symptomatic rivalries that resulted. So the rare kinship between the two female colleagues brought to light an occasion when co-worker gossip is productive. Maybe it’s easier to swallow in a former era and in a fictional format, but there’s an argument for properly placed office gossip even today.
“If someone shares gossip with you, it bonds you together,” Fort Knox psychology professor Frank McAndrew, Ph D. told Forbes Woman earlier this year. “It creates trust. If you’re not in the loop, you feel ostracised.”
Hanna Rosin made a similar assertion in a 2009 opinion piece on Slate’s Double X site. “At a small office where I once worked, the gossip was like family gossip,” she writes. “It was all viciously intimate but assumed a great amount of unspoken connection and affection.”
While it can be a bonding tool in a cozy workplace setting, Rosin notes, then at a larger office it can keep people unhappily boxed in their pre-prescribed roles. But recent research suggests gossip can also facilitate upward mobility and change. A study published last year by researchers at Indiana University suggests the method was effective for at least one team of elementary school teachers who used gossip to air complaints about a new principal that were previously ignored. So despite the hurtful aspects of derogatory murmurs, there is a democratic side to the impulse, allowing certain silenced voices to be heard. But they’re the voices with the best gossip skills, not always the best judgment.
“Gossip is a social skill,” adds McAndrew in the Forbes piece. “There are people who are good gossipers and people who aren’t.” If you aren’t, then you’re better off staying out of the line of fire.