The Gossip Train is the University of Colorado Ombuds’ series of blog posts and lunch and learns on all things gossip. We will explore the origins of gossip, why we gossip, the joys and dangers of gossip, and what you can do when gossip is not helpful!

“Hey, did you hear about Chris?” “I heard Mel is going to quit!” “Do you know how much Pat is making?” “Rumor has it the department is restructuring.” “Sam said there will be layoffs.” Admit it, it would be very difficult to not engage with these statements, and we are all prone to do so. Why?  

First and foremost, let’s be honest with ourselves. We all gossip. Gossip is at the core of society and human relationships. We gossip about work, colleagues, friends, family, other people, and organizations. As discussed in The Gossip Train: What Exactly is Gossip?, the definition of gossip varies greatly. That said, gossip has several inherent characteristics that most can agree on: It involves “informal evaluative talk about individuals/issues/groups in and about organizations between at least two people which may be spoken, written, or visual.” 

There are many reasons we gossip. As Amy Gallo shares in Go Ahead and Gossip, “it’s human to want to connect with others and gossiping is one way to do that. Gossip plays an important role in keeping our society connected”.  While it may be used to wield power or social status, as a political strategy, for social grooming, to question legitimate goals and actions, or to undermine authority, it can also create strong bonds, foster teamwork, funnel information and knowledge, help us make sense of our surroundings, test new ideas, serve as an early warning sign of problems to come, or simply entertain us – a pleasurable activity distracting us from the daily mundane.   

Gossip is certainly not a new phenomenon. The term gossip can be traced back to 1014 and originates from the Old English word godsib, meaning the godparent of one’s child or parent of one’s godchildren – generally referring to a close friendship. Middle English removed the ‘d’ and gosib referred to godparent, drinking companion, and friend. In the 16th century, the word assumed the meaning of a person, mostly a woman, who delights in idle talk, a news monger, a tattler. Then, in the early 19th century, the term was extended from the talker to the conversation of such persons making it both a noun and a verb. 

Gossip is widespread in organizational and social life playing a significant role in the workplace. While its negative attributes have historically overshadowed its virtues, gossip can be positive, negative, and neutral. Stay tuned as we discuss the complexity of gossip over the course of the next few months with our series “The Gossip Train”, which will cover gossip in organizations, delving into positive, negative, and neutral gossip. 

By: Lisa Neale, Associate Director, University of Colorado Denver| Anschutz Ombuds Office