In defence of gossip

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —August 18, 2008
Filed in Business storytelling

Gossip is badly maligned in business, but that’s because most of us only have a limited understanding of the concept. For example, gossip is merely anything we say about someone when they are not there to hear it. And it turns out we spend 65% of our talking time recounting who has done what to whom—gossiping. Business leaders will be pleased to hear that only a small percentage of this time (about 5%) is focussed on maligning our colleagues. So what are we doing in the other 95% and why should we care?

Robin Dunbar, the evolutionary biologist best known for Dunbar’s number of 150, which is the maximum number of people we can get our minds around in a social network, argues that this substantial gossip time is akin to primates grooming each building their social bonds. Primates do it with their hands, humans groom each other with language. Does this sort of exchange sound familiar?

“Did ya hear about Marcus smashing his quota a month before quarter end? How does he do it?” said Amy.

“He’s a freak. I hear he’s big on lead generation and knows the marketing guys really well. Last week I saw him over there with chocolates. He’s pretty friendly with Fiona. By the way are you going to Friday drinks?” said Pete.

Well, this is the type of thing we spend about 65% of our talking time saying. Interestingly Dunbar and his colleagues note that both men and woman spent the same timing gossiping and talked about similar things (experiences and relationships) with two exceptions:

  1. When men were with woman, men gossiped less (less about who did what with whom) yet spoke more. Men became more authoritative, factual and attempted to be more entertaining.
  2. Woman spend 2/3rds or the time talking about other people’s social experiences whereas men spend 2/3rds of the time talking about their own experiences

Dunbar puts these differences down to our evolutionary needs for men to impress woman to find a mate and for woman to be good at building social networks to support the raising of children. Our evolutionary development, of course, is way behind our social situations in the 21st century, but it stills affects how we behave.

Finally we should be aware that most gossip is in the form of storytelling. It’s people recounting events. It’s not what I call big ‘S’ storytelling (well crafted plots, legends, fairy-tales) but the type of storytelling we are involved in much of our talking hours. This type of small, almost invisible storytelling has the greatest impact on who we are, how people view us (our reputation) and how we see this world.

Dunbar, R. (1996). Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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