Some things are part and parcel of working life: forgetting the attachment to an email, a colleague’s cheesy jokes in the open-plan office and water-cooler whinging sessions. Whether you love your job or not, it’s hard to hold back when it comes to commenting on workplace culture, clients, office space, coworkers, salaries and bosses. It’s not unusual to be torn between your mother’s voice telling you “it’s rude to talk behind people’s backs” and the old adage, “he who is absent is always in the wrong”. But when does water-cooler chat slide into playground gossip? And what if complaining has its merits?
Our ancestors, the gossipmongers
“You’re not going to believe this. Rumour has it that Peter, the guy who lives in the cave opposite, stole a piece of mammoth from the chief’s wife!”
In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, author Yuval Noah Harari explains that one of the most plausible theories about the birth of language is the need to share information regarding the world and one’s fellow human beings. According to Harari, gossips are not only essential for a stable society and large-scale cooperation, but their very existence also sheds light on how homo sapiens came to dominate the planet. “Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation,” explains Harari in his book.
Where and how gossiping began can be traced back to its ability to explain a group’s values, and to help us understand what is right and what is wrong. Anthropologists say that through our evolution, gossip has not only served to build social bonds, but also to isolate individuals who aren’t in sync with the rest of the group. Listening to two people bitch about an overly ambitious colleague or hearing them complain about another department’s slacker vibe will tell you more about your company’s values than anything you’ll find on the firm’s intranet page.
Chin-wagging: does it build stronger friendships at work?
Above all, complaining about work and talking behind your colleagues’ backs is a social activity. It helps people find common ground. If information is power, then sharing it with others is a potent symbol of trust within organisations. “It’s true that gossip can sometimes crank up the fear level in an organisation, but research shows it usually does the reverse. By sharing gossip, you make a personal connection, which gives you social and emotional support,” says Joe Labianca, a professor of management at the University of Kentucky.
Describing the trials and tribulations of working with your boss, recounting your extreme annoyance after hearing the latest round of promotions or sniggering in secret at your colleague’s OCD creates a sense of connection with everyone who shares your opinion. They are more likely to be on friendly terms with you at the office. That’s because one constant of human behaviour is to favour members of your own group—those who think like you—over others. In other words, having a good bitch in the workplace brings people closer.
Letting off steam
No one is proud to admit this, but everyone does it at some point. Expressing irritation about work or a colleague’s behaviour helps us cope with the little annoyances that everyday life throws our way. For those in particularly demanding professions, it might even be a necessity. “Not only is gossip a way of building community in difficult working conditions, but it also encourages a type of exchange that facilitates team cohesion and enhances the quality of work. Complaining lets off steam. A decent run of whinging between two colleagues is a collective defence strategy that makes it possible to cope in even the most trying situations,” says Caroline Dumas, an occupational psychologist. Dumas examined research carried out on groups of hospital nurses and noted how some forms of gossiping about patients, colleagues, or administration—which might seem cruel and unusual from an outsider’s perspective—is simply one way of dealing with challenging working conditions.
Complaining about those around you is also a way of finding reassurance in situations of uncertainty. Confronted with a workplace hierarchy that filters information about crises, stressful situations or structural changes, complaining reassures employees and lets them gather information indirectly. Labianca explains how “research shows that gossip often reduces individuals’ anxiety and helps them cope with uncertainty.”
However, opportunities for office gossip might be on the decline. An increasing number of companies are starting to offer their employees flexible or remote working, and certain management techniques go to great lengths to promote efficiency and goodwill in the workplace. Dumas insists, however, on the importance of having the opportunity to vent and express frustrations: “In the field, it’s apparent that the elimination of interstices—these informal spaces for discussion that take place during working hours and are particularly conducive to gossip and exchanges about everyday professional life—prevents employees from sharing their frustrations. It encourages them to internalise their discontent or to find other forms of expression that are sometimes more harmful.” As a way of letting off steam, bitching is a kind of protective measure. What’s more, when there are limited opportunities to vent, most people will take their frustration home with them.
A slippery slope: when things go too far
While complaining and badmouthing might serve, theoretically speaking, as a defence mechanism or exercise in social bonding, the habit does not come without its risks. “Sometimes, when the collective no longer exists, these forms of expression are transformed into individual defence strategies, which are used by individuals who are left alone to deal with certain harmful effects of work. These strategies can end up trivialising difficulty and foster, among other things, the establishment of a kind of power that nonetheless combats fear,” explains Dumas. As a result, there’s a risk of hurting the feelings of others and harming the overall work environment.
On a personal level, such behaviour can tarnish your reputation. Criticising in a way that is disproportionate or not in line with group values can affect how others view you.
Additionally, badmouthing is likely to impact your mental health. According to a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, complaining about work takes up precious energy. “Being in a constant state of vigilance is exhausting,” the authors of the study suggest. The research showed that people who spend more time complaining at the office are more distracted and feel less engaged with their work compared to those who actively put forward solutions to improve the situation.
Be that as it may, with the amount of time most of us spend at the office in the company of colleagues, it seems only natural that office gossip should be a common topic of conversation. In small doses it can be considered a guilty pleasure because, like dark chocolate, it might very well have its health benefits, too. In excessive amounts, however, the side effects could well be harmful.
Translated by Andrea Schwam
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