There are pros and cons of talking about other people, for men and women. It is almost certain that deep in our past, a group of Mesolithic humans stood around a fresh kill, talking about someone who wasn't holding up his end of the hunting and gathering. Jump ahead 15,000 years, and we're still at it. Office gossip is alive, flowing freely and -- depending on your point of view -- either as natural as casual conversation or a pathogen infecting morale, productivity and even health.
Adding to the darker view, gossip may be a special problem for women -- its most able practitioners and, perhaps, its most vulnerable targets. Being cautious with gossip would be common sense, but the lure of being in the loop can be seductive, and stepping out of it is a difficult call because gossip is a standard currency of human connection. A research team from the University of Amsterdam found that 90 percent of total office conversation qualifies as gossip. Research at the Georgia Institute of Technology concluded that gossip makes up 15 percent of office e-mail. Why do we do it? Perhaps a better question is, Why do we love it?
Anthropologists believe that throughout human history, gossip has been a way for us to bond with others -- and sometimes a tool to isolate those who aren't supporting the group. Humans have a powerful drive to know about other people's lives. It's the fascination -- often seasoned liberally with schadenfreude -- behind a welter of magazines and television programs that have made celebrity gossip a more than $3 billion industry. "Your life may be more glamorous than mine," we might think as we scan the covers, "but I'm not alcoholic" Some argue that, at least in the workplace, gossip serves a useful purpose. Northeastern University professor Dr. Jack Levin, author of Gossip: The Inside Scoop, says it can actually be good for our emotional health. (He makes an exception for the weapons-grade rumor-mongering that destroys reputations.) In general, he believes, gossip is a force that ties together social and business networks.
Others identify it as a way to see behind the curtain of employer pronouncements. Both research and the experiences of those who have been the targets of gossip, however, argue that gossip can hurt relationships and create a climate of fear and resentment, all of which feeds stress like humidity feeds a storm. And workplace stress, multiple studies show, causes problems ranging from a decline in productivity to a rise in illness and absenteeism. The question of whether women gossip more than men, and suffer more accordingly, immediately trips over a familiar double standard: What women call gossip men might call just shooting the breeze.
And yet differences in how men and women communicate would suggest that the impact of gossip is uneven: Studies show that women use far more words during the day than men do, and, especially woman-to-woman, those words tend to be personal. The bartering of intimacies -- I share-you share -- is the adhesive of female friendship. While women tend to bond over feelings, men tend to bond over activities -- with limited intimacy. It's no surprise that this difference in communication style translates to differences in how the genders gossip. For women, it tends to be personal: "I can't believe how she interrupts people at meetings." For men, it's more likely to be about status: "Did you hear Ted bought a Mercedes?" The darkest side of gossip emerges when it becomes the weapon -- whether deployed by equal rivals fighting for a position, or by a senior executive protecting her territory.
Most employers understand the disruption workplace gossip can cause, but there is little they can do beyond encouraging open communication. No-gossip policies or zones quickly run into conflicts with free speech and workplace rights, to say nothing of the nightmare prospect of determining what was actually said to whom, and whether it had malicious intent. It's a fact of life: Where there are groups, there will be gossip. It's how we're wired. But in the workplace, what's natural can also be harmful -- to morale, productivity, and careers. The best practice is to "Mirandize" yourself: Simply assume that anything you say can and will be used against you.