Man whispering secret

Decades ago, my sister and her friend were sharing gossip about their junior high classmates. My Mom overheard them and admonished them: “Don’t gossip.” The lesson still resounds, as the friend has recollected to me recently.

A recent article in the Atlantic (Jerry Useem, “The End of Trust,” December 2021, 22-25), however, ties gossip to trust. People working in offices often exchange gossip. Gossip probably encompasses a broad range of topics. For junior high students, it might comprise “who is dating whom” or “did you see what so-and-so was wearing today?”

I presume office gossip, while possibly covering similar questions, is on a somewhat elevated level compared with junior high gossip. Useem believes, “We’re primates. To hear the anthropologists tell it, we once built reciprocity by picking nits from one another’s fur—a function replaced in less hirsute times by the exchange of gossip. And what better gossip mart is there than the office? Separate people, and the gossip—as well as more productive forms of teamwork—dries up.” Useem goes on to relate how surveys indicate that the pandemic-induced isolation is reducing trust among co-workers. Reduced trust may affect productivity, as supervisors may exert more time and effort in monitoring workers.

I suppose there are varying kinds of gossip, ranging from innocuous and informational to malicious bordering on slander. Sincere compliments regarding co-workers and supervisors can be uplifting and morale-building; I presume it also builds trust. As a buddy of mine, who is a political consultant, pointed out, “You can never repeat good news too often.” Another way to build trust is to exchange confidences about each other’s vulnerabilities or concerns. Informational gossip, with its degrees of veracity, can be useful in helping people anticipate changes or also in building morale through camaraderie. War movies inevitably portray a character who has the “scuttlebutt” or the “skinny.” Usually the character has erroneous information.

Malicious gossip, of course, may create suspicion and mistrust, even if the information is correct. If the motivation is to sabotage another co-worker’s opportunity for a plum assignment or promotion, clearly the speaker is acting unethically and will probably sow distrust. I have, on occasion, participated, even instigated, malicious gossip, but I try to avoid doing so. I figure that people will quickly recognize that if I stab someone in the back, then I might stab them in the back, too.

If co-workers maintain face-to-face interaction solely through Zoom meetings, the opportunity for gossip dwindles. Useem believes this diminution has eroded trust among co-workers.

Trust is a key element for successful organizations, profit-seeking or not. If working online contributes to an erosion in trust, then management will have to weigh the safety costs of resuming in-office work with the potential benefits of re-building trust and esprit de corps. The decision will not be an easy one to make.


David Surdam

Professor of Economics

University of Northern Iowa


The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.