Great piece in the New York Times covering a study about the power of insulting gossip among adults. Researchers focused on the dynamics of adult gossip among teachers at a Middle School (nice touch), as reported in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, and found that kids can’t begin to measure up to the negativity spewed by adult gossipers.
Earlier studies have found that once someone becomes the target of negative remarks behind his or her back, the remarks keep coming unless someone stands up and defends the target. In the absence of a defender, social pressure fuels the negativity. The new study confirmed these findings but also found office gossip to be overwhelmingly negative, subtle and unpredictable.
Quoting one of the study authors from the article:
“Office gossip can be a form of reputational warfare,” Dr. Tim Hallett [a sociologist at Indiana University]says. “It’s like informal gossip, but it’s richer and more elaborate. There are more layers to it because people practice indirectness and avoidance. People are more cautious because they know they can lose not just a friendship but a job.” New York Times, 11/3/09
Hallett spent two years studying the group dynamics of teachers at a Midwestern elementary school, which allowed him access on condition of anonymity.
Dr. 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 meetings, where they knew that another teacher might report their insults to the principal, they were more discreet.
He found that the teachers were adept at “managing” the gossip so that it rarely came across as overt, and the momentum carried the negativity forward until someone intervened.
Instead of making direct criticisms, they sometimes offered obliquely sarcastic comments to test the waters. They used another indirect tactic categorized as praise the predecessor, as in the meeting when a teacher fondly recalled a previous administration: “It was so calm, and you could teach. No one was constantly looking over your shoulder.” The other teachers quickly agreed. No one explicitly called the current principal an authoritarian busybody, but that was the obvious implication.
Some teachers were especially adept at managing gossip. At one meeting, after someone complained about a student walking around with his hair shaped into horns (“Tell me, how is that part of the uniform dress code?”), the group began blaming the lapse in discipline on the assistant principal. The gossip seemed to be going down the same nasty track as the teenagers’ she’s-such-a-cow episode until another teacher, an ally of the assistant principal, smoothly intervened. New York Times, 11/3/09