In my previous post I did my best to present the concept of Legitimate Office Politics, while stressing the importance of doing it properly. Now let’s deal with one of its most basic aspects – participating in Office Gossip.
There are people who have a natural and an understandable aversion to any kind of gossip. They usually think something like: “I don’t like it when people discuss me behind my back, so I’m not ready to discuss others behind their backs”. However, one glance at the history of humankind can prove that gossiping is such an important part of our lives that there is no escaping it.
The human language we use today for communication wasn’t the first one that humans came up with. First of all, we learned to talk like children, describing the objects around us, their basic properties and the possible actions regarding them. This worked OK in a small group such as a hunting party or a tribe consisting of 10-20 people, but when people tried to get together on a larger scale, they’ve found out that conflicts between the members of a group using only “direct” language were imminent. The reason for that is that many people means many personal interests, and colliding interests are the essence of Politics.
So, before humans were able to jump from using a “direct” language that only let’s you discuss the basic events of everyday life to today’s complicated language which enables us to discuss abstract concepts, such as Management or Politics, they came up with a Gossip Language – one that let’s you discuss other people. Constantly exchanging information with the members of the group regarding its other members had several immediate benefits:
- Knowing the strengths and the weaknesses of people around you enables creating effective teams for any task (including marriage).
- It can also give one a better understanding of his or her chances to improve their social position, circumventing the strengths of others while exploiting their weaknesses.
- A much better understanding of “what other people want” became available, so one could abstain from threatening their interests in order to reduce conflict potential, while bargaining for favors became much more successful.
This created a completely new type of social interaction – interaction for the sake of interaction. Because the very fact that some people are ready to discuss other people with us means that they see us as part of their group and this is important for everyone. Over time, the tribes who were able to develop stronger social bonds by engaging in gossip were the ones to survive and pass the torch to future generations. Thus, custom gathering and exchange of pleasantries became an integral part of social life because it was crucial for survival and this is as true today as it was true then.
Let’s see how this long tradition of gossiping manifests in today’s office life, so that we can learn to do it correctly.
There are many situations in office life with a potential to turn into gossip talk. Water cooler sessions, going out together for lunch or just going into someone’s office to complain about something that just happened. Doesn’t matter what would be the setting, one thing would be common for all these situations – they will allow an exchange of information that could not be done on any other, more structured occasion. They will allow people to express their personal opinion with some degree of freedom, providing meaningful information, smoothing things up by releasing tensions and reminding everyone that “we are together in this”.
There are many ways to handle those conversations depending on your personal style, so don’t try to copy others blindly if you don’t want to look ridiculous. However, there are several rules that may guide you to apply your personal style in the best way, or at least to have an opportunity to invent it 🙂
Here they are:
- Don’t rush to judge
Our ego tells us that people tell us something because they want to hear our opinion. It’s wrong. When we are engaged in “interaction for sakes of interaction”, it is exactly how it sounds – while interacting, don’t give any judgments and just participate by listening and providing emotional support. If you do have something to say, better say something constructive instead of insulting someone present or absent by hasted judgment.
- Differentiate between personal opinions and bad mouthing
It’s OK to complain and to hear others complain. Ultimately, some say that suffering is the only thing that unifies people :-). However, there is a big difference between complaining and bad mouthing. You do not want to entangle yourself in unneeded alliances that will cause you to forfeit your personal interests for the sakes of some arbitrary conflict. Remember, that it all starts with agreeing to participate in poisonous conversations.
- Grow a backbone
You cannot get the respect of others by just nodding your head. By withdrawing yourself from the conversation you symbolically refuse to perform your part in the information exchange, thus overstepping the social convention. If you do have a personal opinion to express – this is the exact moment to do it. Stepping out of poisonous conversation as advised in the previous point also requires backbone.
Overall, it’s important to remember that when dealing with humans – there are no meaningless communications, because they simultaneously serve several purposes and are not limited to discussing a specific subject.
Know your social goals and think about what you are communicating. Information is power and you are gossiping to trade information with others. And wherever there’s trade – there are less chances for war.
Now, get out there are start gossiping 🙂
I would just add that gossip starts when I assume I know what you are thinking (or feeling, etc.).
I cannot read your mind. I may guess and I probably will … but I should know those are not facts.
When I make judgments based on guesswork I will make more mistakes than usual.
Conversations based on facts are a completely different subject.
I couldn’t agree more Fungus! Especially regarding making more mistakes, when actions are based on perceptions, rather than on real state of affairs…
Thank you for your comment!