Watch Your Mouth: Office Gossip & Other No-Nos

Feb 10, 2012
6 Min Read

Whenever you hear something juicy about a colleague, whether it is related to work or not, you have the immediate impulse to share it across the hall.  Why?

Frank T. McAndrew is a professor at Knox College in Illinois who has devoted part of his research on evolutionary psychology to the study of gossip.

Apparently, humans have an almost irresistible desire to talk about people who are not present. McAndrew believes that in the ancient past, gossip served a useful social function in bonding group members together. At a time when humans lived in small bands and meeting strangers was a rare occurrence, gossip helped us survive and thrive.  Thus, it appears that we are hardwired to be fascinated by gossip.

McAndrew’s research, as described in Scientific American, showed that we're keen to hear and pass along any bad news about our rivals or any good news about our friends.  Men are more likely to share gossip with their romantic partners, while women will whisper with their lovers and their friends alike.  Both men and women prefer talking about and hearing about people of their own gender.

Watch Your Whispers

Despite the genetic predisposition, however, it’s a good idea to censor yourself in the workplace.  Dishing the dirt at work is obviously fun, especially if you’re bored.  Listen all you want, but refrain from contributing to conversations that could compromise someone’s reputation.  Damaging stories spread like a conflagration, and being nailed as the source can be a career killer.  If someone shares a tasty tidbit, simply nod and smile.

Watch Your Language

Also, don’t swear at work. Nothing taints your professional reputation as much as foul language. There are people all over the business world who spew curse words, and maybe your boss is one of them. If you’re tempted to join in, remember where the phrase “potty mouth” came from. At work, you don’t want to look or smell like you were anywhere near the potty, so don’t sound like it either.

Watch Your Topics

When it comes to work conversation topics in general, talking about whatever comes to mind may not necessarily be appreciated, and could earn you a label you don’t want. I suggest avoiding any discussion involving sex, drugs, or politics, because even if you are sure all of your co-workers are on the same page as you, you’re probably wrong about someone.

According to Anthony Balderrama’s article, 13 Things to Keep to Yourself at Work, other conversation topics to steer clear of at work include:

  • Your medical history
  • Your religion
  • Your life of privilege and how you spend your abundance of money
  • Your emotional issues and/or therapy sessions
  • Your compensation details or other confidential HR issues
  • Your job search or future work plans
  • Your personal life

Even seemingly inoffensive topics can actually get you into trouble, so before you open your mouth, think about whether the listener really needs to hear what you’re about to say, and how he will react to it.

Here’s a story that took me by surprise when I heard it.  John Olson was an assistant manager at Publix Supermarkets in Florida, a workplace filled with golf-playing fanatics.  John, on the other hand, preferred to spend his time off in more adventurous pursuits.  Once, he took an airboat into the Everglades and spent the afternoon wrestling alligators.  When John bragged about it to his manager, the boss flew into a breathless rant about how John was an irresponsible manager and was setting a poor example for his hourly employees.  So, you never know.

In short, while you certainly don’t have to walk around the office bound and gagged, you should always ask yourself, “is this TMI (too much information)?” before sharing it.

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