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Gossiping at work is complicated: ‘We could call it manipulative. We could call it brilliant’

March 10, 2023, 5:30 PM UTC
Beware the “gossiping hangover,” where people regret the consequences of an overshare.
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Key takeaways

  • People may gossip at work to harness a sense of control amidst layoffs and uncertainty at the office. 
  • When engaging in gossip and feeling a sense of closeness, the brain releases dopamine or the feel-good chemical.
  • Gossip could be constructive if someone will offer you advice, or benefit from the information, but it you’re craving closeness, you can achieve that in other ways. 

Your ears perk up as you lean in a little closer for that piping hot tea—your workday just got a bit more exciting. Hearing gossip from a coworker who whispers between the cubicles—or sends you a DM—can feel exciting.

As Dr. Scott Lyons explores in his forthcoming book Addicted to Drama, people crave gossip because it fosters a sense of belonging. 

“You’re suddenly in on something that supposedly not everyone’s in on. You become part of that inner circle,” Lyons tells Fortune. “You feel special. You feel like you matter.” 

Gossip might not always be scandalous—it refers to information not meant for the wider public. The term gossip stems from a centuries-old English term referring to people helping others at a baptism, more specifically, a godmother. It later evolved to mean friend or acquaintance before becoming the “idle chatter and rumor” of today, with its negative modern connotation.

While gossip can be the “fuel on the fire of drama,” Lyons says understanding why we gossip and whether or not we can do it well can set us on the path to succeed in the workplace. 

Reclaiming power in the workplace 

While your work life might not precisely mirror the sitcom “The Office,” the show draws on the key reasons why gossip runs rampant at work: a mix of personalities, power dynamics, and too much time together. 

People don’t choose their coworkers as they do friends. Therefore, a melting pot of personalities creates an environment ripe for gossip, Lyons says, especially in an emotionally charged environment where certain people hold authority over others.

“When we’re already feeling disempowered, or there’s not equity in our sense of power, this is a way we might go capture it,” Lyons says.  

At a time when layoff discussions keep spiraling in the backroom, an employee’s isolation and lack of certainty at work grows. People may gossip at work to harness a sense of control, Lyons says, especially with others who share similar concerns. 

Due to the sheer number of hours spent interacting with colleagues, others may be looking for a way to cure the boredom or snap out of the midday slump.

The brain on gossip 

When engaging in gossip and feeling a sense of closeness, the brain releases dopamine or the feel-good chemical. That release makes us lean in closer and share some of our guarded tea. Feeling bonded also releases oxytocin, a hormone associated with feelings of trust and bonding, Lyons says. 

People choose to divulge things dramatically versus narratively to grab our attention quicker, giving the brain a heightened response of excitement. 

“We could call it manipulative. We could call it brilliant,” Lyons says. “It’s a strategy to bring people close in without feeling the vulnerability of intimacy.” 

But it can also cause a stress response, especially if the information feels negative or causes you to worry about what it means for the future. 

“We’re actually rather contributing and upping the ante of our own stress and angst,” Lyons says, albeit masked by the initial excitement of connection. 

So is there a way to gossip well? 

The question becomes whether it is OK to gossip at work? The short answer: it depends. 

The American Psychological Association penned a journal article in 2012 describing the phrase “prosocial gossip,” as “the sharing of negative evaluative information about a target in a way that protects others from antisocial or exploitative behavior.” 

Sharing information to protect a coworker may be prosocial. It all comes back to the intention around sharing. While Lyons advocates for ways people can end their dependency on gossip, he says there are still important things people can consider who tend to spill. 

Be intentional about who you seek out when divulging what may be construed as gossip, he says. It could be constructive if someone will listen to you, offer advice, or benefit from the information. Social bonding helps us process difficult moments, and there is something to be said for coming together with other people who can share your same “woes,” Lyons says.

However, if your intention solely revolves around your desire to enter or even create the “in” group, it is often unproductive. And usually, it is at someone’s expense. If someone values your perspective and listens to you, they don’t need you to exaggerate or put others down to maintain their attention, Lyons says. Simply put, “their focus is not dependent on your performance,” he says. 

“Gossiping hangover” 

Beware the “gossiping hangover,” Lyons says, where people regret the possible consequences of the overshare. 

If craving closeness forces us to gossip, Lyons wants people to consider how to achieve this in other ways. Instead of divulging a secret about someone else, consider being vulnerable with a colleague about something meaningful about your life outside of work. Whether you see this as gossiping or not, it can create that sense of trust without the adverse effects of gossiping at work. 

Before you gossip at work, consider the following 

When feeling the need to gossip at work, ask yourself what you really need at the moment. To eliminate tension, boredom, or frustration, take 10 minutes to stand up, get fresh air, use the restroom, and decide what will serve you. 

Is talking to someone you feel close to going to help because you trust their wisdom and advice, or is cooling down alone better than ranting without purpose? 

When thinking about gossiping in a new way, Lyons also challenges people to think of the receiver. Unloading on someone who didn’t ask to carry your gossip can do the opposite of fostering trust. Gauge whether the recipient is okay taking time to hear new information on a given topic. 

People desire connection at work. It’s a natural human instinct to want to feel closer to someone you see or chat with all the time, especially since the pandemic and the rise of remote work. But we may be due for a check on how to teeter the line between gossiping that harms versus gossiping that serves those relationships. 

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