By Chris Chittenden
The idea that people talk too much and too freely about others can be summed up in one word: gossip. Gossip involves conversations about the details of people's lives and is seen by a large number of people as being destructive. Certainly, gossip can be very disparaging but it also serves a very valuable purpose. The key to understanding its value lies in the nexus between conversations and relationships. People gossip to build relationships with others. By sharing knowledge, they build intimacy with others through a shared view of the people in their world. The effect of gossip on an individual lies, not in that they are the subject of gossip, but what stories are being told about them and why the stories are being told.
In her book, "You just don't understand", Deborah Tannen draws two distinctions about gossip that puts it into a different context. She speaks of gossip as either "talking against" or "talking about". The difference lies in how we speak of others and the reasons for those conversations.
When people engage in "talking against" gossip, they are seeking to build a relationship with the people in the conversation, but they are potentially damaging the relationship between those in the conversation and the people who are the subject of the gossip. This type of gossiping can be seen as a way of seeking to be more accepted in a group or by another person by alienating others.
"Talking about" gossip does not involve destructive stories about others. It is a means of keeping people up to date with the details of the lives of other members of a network of relationships. This form of gossip plays a very strong role in building community and forming stronger bonds between people within the group.
Gossip is ever-present in all organisations and provides those who want to check on the health of relationships within an organisation with an incredible wealth of data. By distinguishing the type of gossip that is happening and who is involved, it is possible to develop a sense of the organisational mood, identify the strength of the various relationships and better understand people's concerns. As we have often said, the quality of conversations will speak to the quality of relationships, which will in turn point to areas of strength and weakness in the coordination of action of those involved. So next time you see a group of people standing around the water cooler having a chat, wander over and tune in. You might learn something new about the relationships in your organisation and be able to intervene earlier to deal with pending issues.
© 2001 Chris Chittenden