Is there really such a thing as a good gossip?


We’ve not even gotten to the end yet and I’m already having separation anxiety.

I love The Good Wife, and this season has been gripping on all sorts of levels.

For those unfamiliar with the show, The Good Wife follows the (literal and metaphorical) trials and tribulations of Alicia Florrick, a lawyer in Chicago with a complicated history in practice and a complicated relationship with her husband, the Governor of Illinois.

One of the most fascinating themes of The Good Wife is its exploration of the legal conundrums of the Internet age, as well as its impact on our political systems and social interactions.

Office politics play an equally prominent role, and in one of my favourite episodes from this season, the two beautifully collided when Alicia’s firm’s email accounts were hacked into and everyone was able to read what every one else had been saying about them.

And much of it wasn’t very pleasant.

Office gossip. Office griping. Venting. Character assassination. Rumour and speculation. Judgment. It was all on show for the world to see. And people exploded – with outrage and hurt and incomprehension – resulting in stand up rows, fisty-cuffs, even spitting.

Great drama, of course. Amplified. Unrealistic? I guess it depends on where you work.

We’ve seen enough emails exposed in the media to know people say some pretty nasty things about the people they work with, just ask Angelina Jolie.

So we know it happens. How frequently, how universally? This we don’t know – and seeing the riots that followed in The Good Wife, perhaps the moral of the tale is that we don’t want to.

I think it’s telling what I’ve written above – in that everyone was able to read what everyone else had been saying about them.

Email is a multi-functional, multi-tonal platform – sometimes for formal letter style communications, sometimes for a string of emoji and a coded abbreviation only known to the recipient.

In the flow of the working day, most of our internal emails to colleagues are sort of continuous conversations that may have many gaps filled in via phone calls or, every now and then (amazing as it may sound), a face-to-face conversation.

We consider them as private as if we were on a call or seated in a corner with them. Often they are sent because something cannot be said out loud, particularly as so many in office environments are seated out in the open.

You could argue perhaps that’s the problem – there’s nowhere for people to go and vent, but I think that’s an upside down way of looking at the issue.

People will always need to vent.

People won’t always get along and they certainly won’t always see eye to eye at work. In lots of ways, that’s a good thing – different angles and perspectives can shift things into new directions, can cover more bases, reflect more appetites.

People will always say things they don’t really mean.

Often for dramatic effect, or comic effect, or because they know their audience will know they don’t really mean it in that context. Rarely, at work, does “I want to kill them!” indicate true malice aforethought.

Having said that, I don’t think office gossip (or whatever else you want to call it) is inevitable.

Internal communications, used in the right channels, at the right time, in the right ways, can stem a lot of the flow of certainly rumour and speculation.

Open, and frequent, conversations, between everyone, and at all levels, can dispel myth, clarify intent; connect people to a united purpose.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it, but we often get in the way of ourselves.

There are organisations, though, independent of size, where you do get the sense there’s very little back-biting, and it always comes down to the one basic principle: it’s a business that talks. A lot.

In The Good Wife, committed as it is, I think, to dramatic authenticity, the fall out of opening their firm’s Pandora’s box has taken many forms.

Some relationships have been repaired, some perhaps only on the surface, and some have been terminated, but, overall, most have benefited by at least knowing where they stand or having the opportunity to clarify it in the aftermath.

Employers can strive to make workplaces happier places with more open forms of communication. It’s in their business interests to do so. Just think how many working hours are lost in ‘he said, she said’ dialogues.

But it’s down to all of us to choose whether honesty really is the best policy and whether, when people do talk, we’ll listen.

This blog first appeared on 17th June 2015

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