We all do it. Friendly banter, weekend stories, emerging relationships and other topics can be the subject of many “watercooler’ discussions. There can even be factual information shared with coworkers or patients. Casual conversations happen all the time. Is this harmless chitchat or gossip? Is there a difference and does it matter?
Establishing connections in the workplace is a crucial element of job satisfaction. It is a critical aspect of organizational culture. As social beings, verbal communication is the most common way of connecting with one another. Informal conversation that is not tied to work activity helps people feel more connected. Most of us like to share stories, experiences, passions, interests and ideas with others. This builds bonds, creates trust, and can even create friendships. These conversations can help your employees and patients to build morale, to feel more rooted in and loyal to the company, and to feel like they are an integral part of a caring community. In short, chitchat is not harmful and is most likely beneficial for both the individuals and the company.
Gossip, on the other hand, begins when the conversation turns to other people’s private lives. The Cambridge diction goes on to qualify that definition to say that discussion might be “unkind, disapproving, or not true.” But I think the minute we start talking about the private life of someone who is not part of the conversation we have crossed the line between chitchat and gossip, regardless of whether the comments are unkind, critical or untrue. And in the work environment, I can argue that talking about a coworker, unless you are singing their praises, is probably a topic to be avoided.
There is a “test of three,” attributed to Socrates that asks three questions to determine if something is worthy of discussion. “Is what you have to share with me true?” “Is this information good news?” and “Is what you have to share with me useful to me?” When we are having casual conversations, with the exception that it’s not always about me, these are good things to consider before sharing something. Obviously describing my ski vacation would fail the test but is still positive. So take it with a grain of salt.
Gossiping, like other negative human habits and behaviors, is not something you can simply tell people not to do and leave it at that. Your employees will need to understand what gossip is, why gossip is so alluring, and why they must take care not to spread it or be drawn into it by another person.
But there is nothing at all wrong with making our conversations positive. There is enough negativity out there that if we were to make a conscious effort to have meaningful, positive conversations with our peers and friends, you might be surprised how that lifts everyone’s spirits.