Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Pluses and Pitfalls of Gossip

In the previous post, Jeff Harrison made several excellent points about the poisonous, pernicious nature of faculty gossip. It isn't a far stretch to imagine that idle chatter would undermine collegiality and proffesionalism among faculty colleagues. In theory, at work, one wishes to be evaluated by one's colleagues based on only the "pertinent" criteria of efficiency, productiveness, professionalism, etc. etc. Then again, I remember how much faculty friendship and collegiality is celebrated at every first year orientation--as if for some reason, it matters that the faculty are friends with each other, have dinner with each other and know the names of each others' kids. As if such friendship and cordiality will trickle down to the students, in this sing-song sunny law school environment where everyone is friends with each other and knowing a lot about each others' personal lives is a "good" thing.
I used to have idealistic notions of the academy, a perspective that is continually disabused the more time I spend in academia. I'd like to think that the gossipy nature of law school, which is very capable of existing in a graduate law program with mostly international students (gossip isn't culture-specific, it just means more languages with which to transmit the gossip) and is reflected by the experiences of my graduate student friends in other disciplines (English, Journalism, Sociology, MFAs, you name it)--well I'd like to think that it would stop once we got "real," "grown-up" jobs. Then I remember that we are adults, just not with the adult accessories (mortgage, Roth IRAs, kids), and if we act this way now, we will probably act this way a few years from now. Things apparently don't change once you get a job. I know this, because now some of my grad student friends are professors, and I now have law professor friends. The human inclination to idle gossip doesn't end just because you change hats. If anything, you start angling the hat to hear the gossip better.
On the one hand, some studies conducted by the University of Wisconsin and SUNY-Binghamton show that gossip can be good for the workplace. Check out this article from the NY Times, this audio clip from NPR, and this article from the Post-Gazette.
From the NY Times article:
People find it irresistible for good reason: Gossip not only helps clarify and enforce the rules that keep people working well together, studies suggest, but it circulates crucial information about the behavior of others that cannot be published in an office manual. As often as it sullies reputations, psychologists say, gossip offers a foothold for newcomers in a group and a safety net for group members who feel in danger of falling out.

"There has been a tendency to denigrate gossip as sloppy and unreliable" and unworthy of serious study, said David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology and anthropology at the State University of New York at Binghamton and the author of "Darwin's Cathedral," a book on evolution and group behavior. "But gossip appears to be a very sophisticated, multifunctional interaction which is important in policing behaviors in a group and defining group membership."

When two or more people huddle to share inside information about another person who is absent, they are often spreading important news, and enacting a mutually protective ritual that may have evolved from early grooming behaviors, some biologists argue.

"We're told we're not supposed to gossip, that our reputation plummets, but in this context there may be an expectation that you should gossip: you're obligated to tell, like an informal version of the honor code at military academies," Dr. Wilson said.

Fair points. But that doesn't mean that the positive, social tie/social network building effects of gossip can't quickly degerate into pernicious social closure by those with axes to grind or just mean personalities. The thing with gossip in the workplace is that such idle chatter can lead to very real employment outcomes--the exclusion of certain people from career-enhancing informational networks, denial of valuable assignments and promotions, and disappointing the rightful expectation that those we work with will conduct themselves with professionalism. In theory, you'd expect to act with greater maturity than your students.

And however good gossip may be anthropologically and sociologically, it can be bad for one's reputation and weigh negatively in the assessment of one's character.

The folks at Crooked Timber posed a great question about whether evidence of a gossipy personal character may be used as a factor of consideration for graduate admissions, and the responses are well worth reading:

Graduate Admissions Committee for the department in question is deciding whom to admit. For said discipline, as for several others, there is a website on which potential students gossip share information about the departments to which they are applying, and many do so anonymously. One applicant to said department behaves on the website (under the supposed cloak of anonymity) like… well, very badly, saying malicious things about departments he has visited, raising doubts about whether he is honest and the kind of person it would be reasonable to want other students to deal with, and generally revealing himself to be utterly unpleasant.

Question: is it wrong for the GAC to take this information about the applicant into account when making a decision? Secondary question: does it make a difference to your answer that the department is in a private, not a public, university?

Please weigh in with your own responses over at Crooked Timber or here. Altogether very interesting questions posed by both Jeff and Harry: how do we stop gossip. and should we judge others by their human propensity to gossip?

(Picture: From Toothpaste For Dinner)


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