The Gossip Train: What Exactly is Gossip?

The Gossip Train is Ombuzz’s series of blog posts 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!

Pssst! Did you hear? Ombuzz is publishing a blog series on all things gossip. It’s called The Gossip Train. We are exploring what gossip is, why we gossip, the positive and negative impacts of gossip, and what you should and could do when it comes to gossip! Stay tuned for installments during the next few months. Today’s post focuses on the definition. What exactly is gossip?

Most likely, if you are in a workplace with more than two people, you’ve got gossip! The University of Colorado Boulder is no different. Many of the visitors I meet with share concerns about work environment: erosion of trust and morale, lost productivity and wasted time, anxiety about information that is circulating without clear information as to what is and isn’t fact, lack of transparency, divisiveness among employees, hurt feelings, harmed reputations, attrition, undermining authority and credibility, etc. When I ask questions and delve deeper, many of these concerns stem from gossip. But what exactly IS gossip?

As Kathryn Waddington explains in her book Gossip, Organization and Work, “[s]cholars from a range of disciplines, particularly anthropology and psychology, have pointed to the important role of gossip in the evolution of human language and social behaviour. Nevertheless, it is difficult to produce a detached, scientific definition of gossip, not only because of the historical negative connotations, but also as it is an elusive activity and a phenomenon that is difficult to define precisely. Further difficulties in defining gossip occur as it is closely related to other forms of organizational discourse, such as myths, stories, rumour, small talk, chatting, and urban legends.” p. 20-21 (2022). 

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) suggests, “gossip” is endowed with several meanings. To some, it refers only to malicious or actionable talk about someone beyond the person’s hearing. Some believe that gossip only involves untrue tales, while others think it can include truthful remarks. Still others consider “gossip” to be any talk of a person’s or institution’s affairs—whether personal or professional, innocuous, or slanderous.

Merriam-Webster defines it as, “rumor or report of an intimate nature; a chatty talk.” 

In their book Group & Organization Management, Dores Cruz, T. D., Nieper, A. S., Testori, M., Martinescu, E., & Beersma, B., define gossip as, “a sender communicating to a receiver about a target who is absent or unaware of the content.” pgs. 252-285 (2021). 

Recently, I listened to Snack Leadership Podcast with Michelle Mitchell, Co-Founder and Chief Culture Angel of Humm Kombucha (Humm). Humm implemented a no gossip policy and defines gossip as, “talking about someone else’s experience that is not yours to share.” 

You get the idea. Gossip has a variety of meanings and, as we will learn during this series, is a complex topic. Hold on and enjoy the ride!

How do you define gossip? How does it impact your work environment?

By: Elizabeth “Liz” Hill, Associate Director, University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office

Related links: A recording of the September 2022 lunch and learn, “The Gossip Train: What is Gossip and Why do we do it?” is now available.

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