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Why should I listen to gossip? How stories about others can help individuals

Datum:03 juni 2014
Auteur:Elena Martinescu
Why should I listen to gossip? How stories about others can help individuals
Why should I listen to gossip? How stories about others can help individuals

Gossip is widespread in organizations, but it seems to be a paradoxical behavior. On the one hand, people have a high interest in sharing their opinions about colleagues’ successes and failures, but on the other hand they fiercely blame anyone who is known to be a gossiper. Managers and subordinates generally perceive gossip as threatening for themselves and other employees, and explicitly disapprove such behaviors, while sometimes engaging in gossip themselves. Common sense tells people that they should not gossip; those who engage in gossip can expect to be punished by their group members for disobeying this unwritten norm. So why do individuals widely participate in gossip, despite such strong admonishment?
One recent study suggests that gossip is a source of evaluative information about people in one’s social environment. Through gossip, receivers learn what others in their proximity are doing, but more importantly, they learn what opinions the gossipers have about targets’ behavior. This unique kind of information allows gossip receivers to compare themselves with similar others in their organization (the gossip targets), and draw conclusions about themselves. People can easily evaluate their own performance by comparing themselves with similar others who are doing better or worse in one particular situation.

Social comparison helps to explain why we are so eager to listen and even look for evaluations about others spread through gossip. Thus, gossip about others helps the receiver evaluate how he or she is doing, and engage in behaviors that are adaptive. Gossip is a valuable source of information that can be used by receivers for self-evaluation purposes. But how exactly do people make this information relevant for the self?

Gossip provides receivers with lessons about others. Gossip contains stories about what others did, and what was the outcome of others’ behaviors. Especially positive gossip can tell people what and how others achieved a positive outcome. Positive gossip can teach us about how our boss managed to build the company from scratch through hard work and perseverance, or about how our colleague successfully dealt with a difficult client. Thus, such gossip can inform receivers about what the target did to achieve success, and by comparison, what they need to do in order to master challenges or improve their outcomes.

Gossip can also make receivers feel good about themselves and proud in comparison to a colleague who is doing badly. When they receive negative gossip about others, people may engage in a downward comparison with this person. Learning from gossip channels that a colleague received a warning from the boss for not working hard enough may give the receiver the feeling that he or she is better than the target. People have an innate need to feel good about themselves, and readily accept negative evaluations about others as confirmation of their own value. Moreover, negative gossip about a colleague may make a receiver worry about one’s own well-being. Through social comparison, receivers can draw negative implications for the self: “if colleague A received a warning from the boss, will I also receive the warning? Colleague A and me work just as hard, so how long is it before the same thing will happen to me?”. Therefore, negative information about others can set in motion self-protection mechanisms, which help receivers avoid or minimize a threat to themselves.

To conclude, gossip is a more complicated social process than it may seem at first. Although it is a widely disapproved behavior, it fulfills important functions for individuals who engage in it. Gossip tells stories about others, which help individuals evaluate their own performance. A comparison with someone doing better may teach employees how to improve their performance, while a comparison with a co-worker who is doing worse can be flattering or reveal threats for the self.

Article based on Martinescu, Janssen, & Nijstad (2014). Tell Me The Gossip: The Self-Evaluative Function Of Receiving Gossip About Others, under review.


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