The Importance of Office Gossip
That said, if there is one generalisation we can hazard about humans in the workplace, it is that they are – first and foremost – tricky: they make too much of a fuss or not enough of one, they fail to listen or speak incessantly, they procrastinate or rush everything unduly, they grow unfeasibly furious or lack self-confidence, they backstab or dither, panic or daydream (to start the list).
We are often alone with the problems that this throws up. There are a great many options when our computers break down; very few when those we work with destroy our peace of mind. In desperation, we have one chief source of solace: we gossip. We find an ally somewhere in the team with whom to privately discharge our accumulated sorrow at the behaviour of our colleagues.
Exercise: Write down the names of three highly challenging people you are working – or have worked – with.
The problem with gossip in offices isn’t that it happens, but that it isn’t taken seriously enough. We gossip from pain at how difficult our colleagues are combined with a background despair at ever being able to do anything more positive to alter dynamics – other than point to the problem ironically and sigh darkly over a drink in a cafe around the corner from the office. Gossip is at present a defeatist move; it doesn’t hold out any hope for a more mature solution to our distress or a proper improvement in our workplace relationships.
But gossip is a lot more interesting and important than is generally understood. It holds enormously significant information about what is wrong inside a company and what could, with a few interventions, be put right. In its vague and elusive way, gossip is circling essential topics. What we gossip about are the central themes of office psychology: we’re indirectly talking about communication, trust, self-worth, empathy, self-knowledge, respect, creativity and eloquence. We may not use these terms exactly, we may be sticking – in our stories – to specific people and devastating and witty takedowns of their foibles, but we are at heart pointing to multiple failures in the arena of emotional development. It is never so hard, once one starts, to focus in on the psychological issues vibrating beneath the targets of gossip, to move from caustic descriptions of a few maddening people to the identification of a range of essential (and more universal) themes of emotional existence.