Gossip that can get really mean

Perhaps you saw ‘ethnography’ and assumed it would just be quaint reports from the Amazon and the South Seas. But this time enthnographers have returned from the field with footage of a truly savage native ritual: teachers at an elementary school in the Midwest gossiping about their principal behind her back.

These are rare records of ‘gossip episodes,’ which have been the subject of a long-running theoretical debate among anthropologists and sociologists. One side, the functionalist school, sees gossip as a useful tool for enforcing social rules and maintaining group solidarity. The other school sees gossip more as a hostile endeavour by individuals selfishly trying to advance their own interests.
But both schools have spent more time theorising than observing gossipers in their natural habitats. Until now, their flow charts of gossips' conversations (where would social science be without flow charts?) have been largely based on studies in informal settings, like the casual conversations recorded in a German housing project and in the cafeteria of an American middle school. The earlier studies found that once someone made a negative comment about a person who wasn’t there, the conversation would get meaner unless someone immediately defended the target.
Consider, for instance, the cascade of insults recorded in the earlier study of middle-school gossip by Donna Eder and Janet Lynne Enke of Indiana University. In this cafeteria conversation, a group of eighth-grade girls in the cafeteria were discussing an overweight classmate whose breasts they considered too large for her age.
The  study found that gossip in the workplace also tended to be overwhelmingly negative, but the insults were subtle and the conversations less predictable, says Tim Hallett, a sociologist at Indiana University. He conducted the study along with Brent Harger of Albright College.

During his two years studying the group dynamics at a Midwestern elementary school, which allowed him access on condition of anonymity, Hallett found that the teachers became so comfortable with him and his camera that they would freely insult their bosses during one-on-one interviews. But at the teachers’ formal group meetings, where they knew that another teacher might report their insults to the principal, they were more discreet.

As teachers mocked the principal and complained about her being ‘stifling’ and ‘hyper,’ the atmosphere got more poisonous. The principal felt that her authority was being undermined by gossip and retaliated against teachers she suspected (correctly) of criticising her. Teachers and administrators fled the school, and the students’ test scores declined.

Some bosses have tried turning the office into a “no-gossip zone,” but Hallett says it is more realistic to try managing it. If, say, an office rival seems poised to abuse one of your absent allies, Hallett suggests you make a ‘pre-emptive positive evaluation.’ A quick ‘Isn’t she doing a great job?’ might be enough to stop the attack.

If your rival tries persisting with indirect sarcasm— “Oh, real great job”—you can force the issue by calmly asking what that means. And if that doesn’t work, Hallett suggests you try an even simpler tactic that was used successfully at the teachers’ meetings -- and that is available in any workplace anytime. In fact, it’s one of the tactics that distinguishes office gossip from nonoffice gossip. When the going gets tough, when the gossip gets mean, you always have one reliable escape line: “Don’t we have some work to do here?”
NYT

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