And you thought the only lesson that would come out of Enron was, “Don’t do this…”
Remember all those emails that were released after Enron’s collapse. Well one scientist wasn’t really concerned with an accounting scandal. He analyzed them to see how gossip effects an office, and his findings might surprise you.
First of all, out of 600,000 emails, 15% could be considered gossip. Basically, the emails contained information about someone other than the sender or recipient. It could be as innocuous as, “Kevin is sick and couldn’t make it in today, can you cover his accounts?” Or it might be as harsh as, “John is a a complete idiot. I can’t handle him today.”
I’m not saying that I personally have sent a lot of emails that looked like that latter. But if I had sent such messages, this research might me, hypothetically, feel a little bit better about it.
Eric Gilbert, author of the research and assistant professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech University, explains, ”When you say ‘gossip,’ most people immediately have a negative interpretation, but it’s actually a very important form of communication. Even tiny bits of information, like ‘Eric said he’d be late for this meeting,’ add up; after just a few of those messages, you start to get an impression that Eric is a late person. Gossip is generally how we know what we know about each other, and for this study, we viewed it simply as a means to share social information.”
It’s funny that two of the most common complaints I hear about working in an office are a lack of communication and too much office gossip. As Gilbert points out, gossip is often how we communicate with each other. It’s how we learn more about the dynamics of the office and it makes it easier for us to understand what’s going on.
Tanushree Mitra, a Ph.D. student who worked with Gilbert on the research, said, ”There is a rich literature in anthropology and sociology on the universality and utility of gossip among human social groups. A recent survey of that literature summarized gossip as having four main purposes: information, entertainment, intimacy and influence. We found evidence of all those categories in the Enron emails, relating to both business and personal relationships.”
In an office situation, relationships between employees matter. And while some might complain that gossip hinders relationships, it also shares important information with wide groups of people. It builds relationships between those who confide in each other. And it makes everyone more open and honest about what’s going on.
So bring out the snark and get your gossip on. Science says you have every right to email your friend in accounting and tell her all about the guy from graphics trying to hit on your boss in the break room this morning. Start spreading the word.