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Expertisecentrum HRM&OBOnderdeel van Rijksuniversiteit Groningen

Expertisecentrum HRM&OB

Faculteit Economie en Bedrijfskunde
Expertisecentrum Human Resource Management & Organisational Behaviour
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What did they just say about me?

Datum:30 april 2015
Auteur:Elena Martinescu
What did they just say about me?
What did they just say about me?

People gossip a lot, and they do it in every context they happen to find themselves, including the workplace. But does this information ever reach the colleague we are talking about, and if it does, how does it affect this person?

Gossip, or telling someone your opinion about another person behind his or her back, can be found in about 70% of the informal conversations we have on a daily basis. We like to talk about others’ relationships, character, clothing style and appearance, but also about how our colleagues are performing at their job, how able and motivated they are to do their tasks, how much they cooperate, etc. Given that we like to talk about others so much, sometimes the information we spread behind their back reaches the person we are talking about. People that are targets of gossip in the workplace sometimes accidentally overhear others talk about them, eavesdrop on conversations they are not included in, or are told by someone what others are saying behind their back.

In one study in which we asked employees to think of an event when a colleague gossiped about them, the majority of respondents could think of a situation in which they were the target of gossip. We found that people like to hear that others are saying good things behind their back, and dislike situations in which others talk negatively about them. People who overhear positive gossip about themselves experience positive emotions about themselves – they feel happy and proud. They also have positive emotions about the person that said something positive about them. When we hear others say nice things about us we like them more and we want to interact and make friends with these people, because they show us that we are accepted and appreciated, and could prove to be good allies in the future.

Hearing others gossip negatively about ourselves is an unpleasant experience, because it tells us that something is wrong, either with ourselves or with the others. Negative gossip can make us reflect on our own actions and realize that indeed we may be responsible for making a mistake or for performing below expectation. Feeling guilty due to negative gossip motivates people to correct their mistakes and improve their performance or contribution to the group. However, negative gossip can also make people think that others are trying to harm them without directly confronting them, which makes gossip targets angry. When people are angry with the ones that spread negative gossip about them they may try to harm this person as well, in order to get back at someone they perceive to be their enemy or rival.

This research shows that people are often aware of what others say behind their back and the way they interpret this event shapes their reactions. Moreover, our study shows that most gossip that reaches the target has positive effects on the individuals and the group (it makes people work harder, evaluate themselves more positively and consider the others as their allies), unless they believe that the gossiper is trying to harm them on purpose. When this happens, individuals are likely to become angry and aggressive towards their rival.

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