As the saying goes, if you don’t have something nice to say about anybody, come sit by me.
Seriously, sit by me. Like Alice Roosevelt Longworth — to whom that quote has been attributed, and Olympia Dukakis’ Clairee in “Steel Magnolias,” who famously repeats it — I have a weakness for juicy, interpersonal information, a predilection that has followed me into my professional life.
Not that I’m alone. Researchers define gossip as “talking about someone who is not present” and, according to a 2019 meta-analysis, people spend an average of 52 minutes a day doing it.
But that gossip is not always negative. In fact, as the study found, most if it was neutral. (Contrary to stereotypical images of a conniving older female info-hound, young people and men tended to be more snarky, according to the study.)
Which has made gossip, in a workplace, both omnipresent and useful. As the other saying goes, information is power — and sharing information can help spread the power around.
This is a strong human impulse according to Robin Dunbar, the author of “Gossip, Grooming and the Evolution of Language” and professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, and one that we shouldn’t necessarily fight. “Its primary purpose is to allow us to keep track of what’s going on in our social circle when we don’t have time to keep track of things” on an individual level, he said.
This is not to put others down, he added, “but to make sure we don’t say the wrong things when we do get to see someone.”
Of course, these days, many remote office workers aren’t seeing so much of anyone. With fewer opportunities even in physical work spaces to idly chatter, what’s happening to our office busybodies?
In an unscientific poll of my friends and family, everyone agreed that office gossip has not stopped; it has simply migrated to screens. But because a home office is one that lacks serendipitous office encounters, one may need to be a bit more proactive about finding ways to communicate.
For my friend Amy Larkin, 40, an after-school youth development educator in Richmond, Virginia, this meant starting a group text chain for colleagues to discuss new work issues.
For my sister-in-law Becca Nelson, 26, who works at an education startup in Denver, it has meant putting one-on-one meetings on the calendar to get to know co-workers (recruiters are great for finding out what’s going on in a company, she said).
And in the case of Jenny Ma, 40, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights (and also a friend), she has multiple happy-hour Zoom groups — which have been known to meet back to back — to decompress.
The different kinds of digital interactions, according to Larkin, have changed the nature of interoffice conversations since her company went remote. Perhaps even for the better. “I think there’s less gossip — like, being feisty about individual people — and more communication with people the same level as you in an organization about your frustrations,” she said.
This jibes with what Dunbar said about the practice as a whole, which has gotten a bad rap as being emotionally destructive, especially in an office setting.
Until the 18th century, when it gained more negative connotations, it meant “chatting over the yard fence, passing time with neighbors, which signals that you think them worth your time,” he wrote in an email. “Bad vibes at work arise not from gossip as such, but from relationships between the people; gossip simply mediates these.”
Of course, without actually seeing our co-workers, we may be forced to find new sources of gossip-worthy material. Nelson pointed out that many workers have public calendars, often full of juicy details (a meeting with HR; manager training for someone newly, and not publicly, promoted to manager) viewable to anyone inside a company.
“It’s an open secret — well, not even a secret,” she said. “If you want to know what’s going on, look at their calendars.”
Slack is an obvious place for having a side conversation, but beware: Company work spaces are the property of the company, and no conversation is truly private once you put it in writing. (Also: Nelson informed me that Zoom has a private messaging feature that would be frighteningly easy to mistake for the public messaging tab during a meeting, something that will now keep me up at night.)
But if you can’t get on the phone to talk, there’s always getting on the phone to text. It’s also a bit risky (screen shots, people!), but it can sometimes be necessary. What is gossip to one person may be career-saving intel for another.
“We have Zoom meetings, where we text while we’re in the meeting,” Larkin said. “It’s not just gossip — it’s also for morale. I said something in a meeting that I was afraid was overreaching, and I looked at my phone and there were all these messages of support.”
It can also, though, be obvious to the same co-workers you are talking about. One friend, who is a boss at a law firm, told me that she has seen her colleagues looking down and laughing at the same time during all-staff meetings, and found it obnoxiously clear what they were doing. She texted them — in real time — to say, cut it out.
Clairees of the world, you’ve been warned.