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Mind Matters: Gossip in the Lab -- Proceed with Caution

Amy,* a research assistant at a large medical school, takes smoke breaks several times a day. She's made numerous attempts to shake her habit, but so far she hasn't succeeded. One incidental, smoking-related perk, which she's reluctant to give up, is her membership in the clique of smokers who huddle in a semiprotected niche outside the building, regardless of the weather. They come from different research labs and departments to light up -- and gossip. These co-workers don't normally connect on the subject of science, given that they are all involved in different kinds of research. But they seize this opportunity to catch up on workplace politics.

"It can make us think twice about doing something socially unacceptable." --Nicholas DiFonzo

The smokers banter about a lab chief who breathes down the necks of his assistants so closely that working for him is barely tolerable. "He left nice and early himself on New Year's Eve," one says, "but made sure to call at 5 p.m. to make sure that we were still there." Amy thinks she might want to move on to another lab in her department; now she knows she doesn't want to work for that guy.

The smokers chitchat about a principal investigator (PI) who is so focused on getting her next grant and publishing her next paper that she never has time to mentor her assistants. "She treats me like a drone, expecting me to enter data all day. I don't feel like I'm learning anything new from her," says that PI's hopeful protégé. Cross that lab off the list, too, Amy thinks. Another smoker has gotten wind of a rumor that a department chair is interviewing at another university and may not be around that much longer, turning the conversation to what that might mean for the department and the medical school.

"Gossip has a bad reputation, which, for the most part, is well-deserved," says Nicholas DiFonzo, a psychologist at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York state and author of The Watercooler Effect. "It can be socially corrosive," he adds, noting that gossip can hurt feelings, damage relationships and reputations, disrupt work, and destroy careers.

(NSF; Paul Thompson and Arthur Toga, UCLA)

Gossip's bad reputation is long-standing; the Talmud calls gossip a "three-pronged tongue" that kills the person who says it, the person who listens, and the person about whom it is said. With its serious risks and deep historical and religious aversions, it's not surprising that some offices forbid gossip. In a widely publicized incident in 2007, a Chicago-based public relations agency issued a no-gossip policy and fired three employees for violating it.

In the scientific workplace, gossip may be especially risky, because gossip is almost always based on unverified information, which goes against the grain of basic scientific principles if not necessarily the science-workplace culture. Gossip may be as prevalent in the lab as elsewhere, but there may be less tolerance for gossipers because they are more likely to be viewed as unprofessional.

But is workplace gossip as bad as all that? One could argue that gossip has its positive side. It helps the smokers feel better about themselves in relation to their colleagues and offers them useful insight into the dynamics and unspoken rules of the organization they work for. I asked DiFonzo whether gossip might have gotten a bad rap. "Paradoxically, something good can come out of it," DiFonzo says. "It can make us think twice about doing something socially unacceptable." He adds that it can offer an early-warning system, revealing workplace landmines, and provide an outlet for scientific staff to vent feelings and garner support from peers. In effect, it can function as a de facto safety valve in the workplace, allowing whole organizations to self-lubricate and blow off steam.

In his book, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, Professor David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University in New York state cites an example, from the Lest culture of Micronesia in the 1930s, that shows how gossip can be a first line of defense against social aberration. He tells about a man whose pig was eating another man's crop. The person whose crop was being ravaged wasn't upset, but townspeople took up the cause, criticizing the transgressor until the man offered his pig to the victim to mitigate the damage not just to the crop but to his own reputation. The aggrieved-but-grateful man didn't accept the pig but insisted that people stop talking about the incident. "Gossip functioned like an immune system, detecting and repairing even this tiny breach of etiquette," Wilson writes.

In society at large, such pressures for conformity can be good or bad. But in a workplace, such self-correction can help to protect a delicate social system against damaging deviations. Gossip provides important social information that helps group members distinguish what behavior is acceptable and what is unacceptable, and helps self-police the latter.

In a workplace where it's prevalent, gossip can also serve as a social lubricant. In an e-mail to Science Careers, Wilson writes, "We're told we're not supposed to gossip, that our reputation plummets." But, he suggests, in some instances gossip among co-workers seems obligatory. "You're obligated to tell, like an informal version of the honor code at military academies." If you refuse to go along, he notes, you can be viewed as not being collegial, or worse.

So if gossip is, on the one hand, potentially damaging to your career, but on the other hand potentially helpful and possibly obligatory, what should you do? Should you gossip in your own scientific workplace? And if you're a manager, how should you approach workplace gossip?

- Avoid gossip if you can.

Gossip may serve some positive social functions, but it's risky, so it's best to play it safe. Don't become known as the person who initiates gossip, or promotes it. If others don't gossip, you shouldn't either.

- If you must gossip, gossip judiciously

"Don't underestimate the power of gossip to wreck or enhance reputations," DiFonzo says. Although the boundaries between work and the rest of our lives are becoming increasingly blurred, there's less tolerance for personal gossip -- about looks, clothes, sexual orientation, romances, economic status, and so on -- than about work-relevant topics, such as management changes, hirings, firings, and favoritism. Gossip that has no bearing on a person's work can easily be interpreted as evidence of a lack of professionalism.

But even work-related gossip can hit too close to home; if you're discovered saying unflattering things about a supervisor, things might not go well for you even if you were talking about professional matters. No matter whom it's about, gossip that's especially acidic is corrosive even when it's strictly professional; like the Talmud says, it's likely to harm everyone involved. So be wary of participating in gossip that is unduly personal, sarcastic, undermining, or hostile.

- If you hear gossip, exercise discretion

If someone shares gossip with you, evaluate the gossiper's motives. Is it an effort to enhance his/her own position or power? Know what's behind it before acting on it or passing it on. Some people use false or unverified information as a tool for manipulation or self-enhancement.

- Don't believe everything you hear, even if disbelieving requires, well, a willing suspension of belief.

When Don,* a molecular biologist, took a new job in industry, he learned that a manager -- call him 'Rich,' was infamous. Rich was having an affair; he had been dating the department head; he was arrogant. "I ended up working on a project with him," Don writes in an e-mail. "Even though I found through experience that some of those things were true, I still had to work with him and it was difficult to put those things I'd heard out of my mind." He managed to remain open to his new supervisor, found out that Rich had some positive traits, and established a sound working relationship. "He was arrogant, yes, but he was also a strong leader who took bold steps to have the project succeed. None of the things I had previously heard were helpful," Don writes.

- Only gossip among people you know and who know you.

Gossip is relatively safe among people who know each other well and trust each other. Within a small, trusted group of workplace friends, your remarks are less likely to be misinterpreted, and you are less likely to take awkward social risks.

The Internet raises the stakes. People tend to act more impulsively and take more risks online, and may let down their guard more in assessing and relaying potentially destructive gossip. And anything that is written in an e-mail can be circulated widely. Be especially wary of gossip sent by e-mail and never forward it to others.

- If you're a manager, assess whether gossip is symptomatic of a paucity of communication

If your job involves monitoring and nurturing the functioning of a lab or department, keep your ears open wide and assess whether gossip indicates a dearth of opportunities, formal or informal, for routine communication about vital subjects. For example, gossip about layoffs, budget cuts, outsized workloads, or inadequate compensation may not be especially professional, but during an economic downturn like the one we're in, these things are on people's minds. Workplace gossip can be a warning that all is not well -- one a manager should heed. It may also be just the thing to lower the pressure in the workplace, keeping people from making decisions that are bad for the lab. If you are able to provide other open lines of communication, people will use them, but gossip isn't always a bad alternative.

- Know when and how to draw the line

If you feel you are getting sucked into hurtful gossip, find a way to extract yourself gracefully. An ethnographic study by Timothy Hallett, Donna Eder, and Brent Harger of Indiana University, published in the October issue of the Journal of Contemporary Ethnology, suggests several ways an individual can "subtly derail gossip," including changing the subject, making the target of criticism less personal and more indirect, and pre-empting criticism with positive comments.

The problem with gossip is that one day it will be about you.

The best way to understand why gossip -- despite the positive aspects listed above -- is dangerous and undesirable is to consider that at any time you may be its target, and gossip is rarely flattering.

If disparaging gossip about you makes its way back to you, should you respond or remain silent? Most experts agree that the surest defense against malicious gossip is to remain above the fray: Ignore it in the public arena, maintain your focus on science, and use what you heard as motivation to be more effective and professional. Then, "Gather your close friends and explain yourself in a more accurate light," says DiFonzo. "Ask your friends to spread your rebuttal in informal settings. It raises more questions than answers if you try to defend yourself."

*Names are fictional.

Photo (top): Joi Ito

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