It is a truth almost never acknowledged, that university communities are absolutely, totally, tragically addicted to gossip.
I was reminded of this truth when the identity of the new ANU VC was announced last week. It was goodbye to the much celebrated and respected Brian Schmidt and hello to the much celebrated and respected Genevieve Bell. Everyone I talked to seemed happy about the change in leadership. And when I say ‘everyone’, it feels like I talked to almost everyone last week because the gossip network was running HOT.
I’ve not seen the gossip network run this hot since… last time we changed VCs.
Any significant change of leadership is ground zero of gossip: a moment where the normal background hum of gossip suddenly explodes into frantic activity. My phone and Teams message channels lit up with people wanting to talk about the Big News. Everyone wanted to know what everyone else thought… presumably so they would also know how to think.
It was a highly amusing week for someone like me who LOVES gossip.
Like most people, while I love to hear gossip, I don’t want to admit to doing the gossiping. Part of the thrill of listening to gossip is that it feels like deviant behaviour – but is it really? I spent two weeks reading books about gossip during my PhD (one of those fun rabbit holes that one falls down) and it changed my perspective. Ever since I learned about the social uses of gossip, I’ve been OBSESSED with how it works inside the university.
So, if you’ll indulge me, this change of VC gives me an excuse to drop a post about academic gossip. It’s a post I have long wanted to write, but I’ve hesitated because, well – gossip is a bit, unsavoury. Admitting out loud to liking and participating in gossip is like farting in an elevator: it usually provokes a long, uncomfortable silence.
The idea that gossip is always bad is not an accident: women and gossip are indelibly linked in Western culture. In the middle ages, in Britain, a Gossip was the person who assisted the midwife at a birth. The Gossip was responsible for telling the village when a new child was born, and I guess they also talked about how the birth happened too… hence the name stuck to talk about other people’s business. The denigration of gossip speaks to a deep cultural distrust of women, particularly when they are doing something out of sight of men (for a great discussion see the book Witches: what women do together by Sam George-Allen).
People often deplore gossip and claim our world would be better off without it. But these people are wrong.
As Kathryn Waddington explains in her scholarly and entertaining book Gossip and Organisations, gossip is a form of social network building whose purpose is to ‘… entertain, supply social information, and establish, change or maintain group membership, group power structure or group norms’ (page 8). We all rely on the social information contained in gossip to navigate our complex social worlds, especially hierarchical worlds like academia.
Gossip about powerful people helps less powerful people anticipate problems in advance and sometimes take preventative measures (“I’m not going to get on his bad side”). Gossip also helps us know who is likely to be helpful and who isn’t, and under what circumstances (“He pretty much gives everyone an extension on their assignment – so long as you can show that you’ve been turning up to class”). Crucially, gossip gives us important information about someone’s emotional affect – what moods they are capable of and who is likely to feel the effects (“Yeah, he seems nice, but he’s got a temper with incompetents – one time I saw him chew out the Associate Dean. It was kind of fun to watch”).
Gossip is subversive – in both good and bad ways. Information is power and gossip is one way of hoarding and leveraging non-positional power over those in positions of authority. That’s a fancy way of saying it’s a really good way to undermine others by ruining their reputation and making people less willing to co-operate.
I’ve experienced first hand how gossip about you can poison your reputation with a person, or group. Hearing gossip about yourself is confronting, especially the way your character and behaviour is represented. I don’t recognise myself in some of the gossip I’ve heard about me, but on the other hand, there’s also something in that saying ‘may you be judged by the quality of your enemies’. If the person spreading the gossip is not well regarded by others, it does much less damage than if it comes from someone that others like and trust.
Gossip is one of the ways we build useful, trusted networks, but it also has the power to dismantle them. Gossip flourishes in places like schools and universities because the power and dominance struggles are so multi-dimensional and intense. In the academic hunger games, where very survival depends on access to resources and the right kind of alliances, it shouldn’t surprise us that gossip is pervasive. Participating in gossip is important because it helps you know important stuff that will never circulate in official channels.
People use gossip to curb the powerful without direct confrontation. Knowing how a person may react or behave helps you ‘manage up’ – and manage sideways for that matter. If a horrible person is hired into a position of power, the women in my circle will tend to know in advance because so many of us are skilled sensitive information sharers. The latest data on Australian Higher Education show that women are still less likely to be in positions of power than men, so there is perhaps more incentive to share. Men maybe get less of an education in the social utility of gossip, which I think can be a distinct disadvantage in times of trouble. But a common misconception is that men gossip less than women; conversational research suggests this isn’t true. When men gossip it’s usually just called something else, like ‘debriefing’ or ‘catching up’.
So gossiping is advantageous for everyone, but becoming known AS a gossip is a bad thing as people will probably stop confiding in you out of worry that their own gossiping will be ‘leaked’. But here’s the thing: the unspoken rule of gossip is you have to share if you want to be shared with. If you don’t participate, or participate in the ‘right way’, you will be held out of important information sharing. There’s definitely advantages in knowing stuff about powerful people in a hierarchy like academia – especially if it helps you avoid their reach (literally in the case of the excel spreadsheets of handsy men shared as part of the Me Too movement).
Academia is gossipy, in part, because it’s a hugely social profession: we develop webs of colleagues all over the world. Knowing who are the good colleagues and who are the blood sucking parasites who steal ideas is of vital importance, and gossip is often the only way you will find out. This is a positive effect of gossip, but there’s plenty of negative ones too – and not everyone enjoys the benefits.
Autistic people have often told me they often struggle with gossip – both listening and participating. Some have a moral objection to it; others find it very confusing and/or a waste of time. l can’t find any specific studies of neurodivergence and gossip (although this reddit thread contains an interesting group discussion). This seems like a real gap in the literature, although lack of interest in gossip is often mentioned in discussions of Autism in the workplace.
Many autistic people have told me that the power struggles that are carried on covertly via gossip seem pointless and a waste of energy. They’re not wrong, but on the other hand, I suspect neurotypical types aren’t going to change anytime soon. Gossip may be wired in for our survival as herd animals; at least Robin Dunbar makes that argument in Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. I guess neurodivergent folks will have to keep finding ways to deal with the perverse effects of gossip – and find ways to leverage the benefits. (There’s a further discussion of neurotypical gossip behaviour from the perspective of autistic people in the paper Re-presenting Autism: The Construction of ‘NT Syndrome’ by Charlotte Brownlow, 2010, if you are interested).
Since gossiping is crucial in the process of bonding with others in a community, it is a vital academic skill set. However, it’s unlikely your supervisor will sit you down and explain the ins and outs of academic gossiping. Don’t worry – Aunty Thesiswhisperer is here to help! The first step in understanding academic gossip is to know it when you see it – sadly, it’s not always easy to spot in action.
Waddington points out that Gossip is more easily defined by what it is not. She lists rumour, friendly chatting and story telling as the kind of talk in which gossip tends to occur. I’d add one more to this list: whingeing. If you understand how each of these kinds of talk function socially, you are in a better position to participate in gossip usefully and well.
Rumour is the exchange of information under conditions of uncertainty. There were certainly a lot of rumours about who was going to be the new VC at ANU, many of which I heard and shared (I wish there had been betting on who would be appointed because I was right and would have CLEANED UP). Friendly chatting is about topics that are not directly to do with other people’s behaviour, it doesn’t meet the standards of gossip either.
Story telling is worth dwelling on for a moment as it’s intimately related to gossip. Story telling in conversation serves many purposes. Sometimes that purpose is just to entertain. In an amusing paper ‘Confronting indifference towards truth: dealing with workplace bullshit’, McCarthy et al talk about telling mildly untrue or exaggerated stories about yourself as a form of ‘artisanal bullshit’. Academic humble bragging is artisanal bullshit – where the purpose of the story is to demonstrate how how hard working/clever/famous you are while not directly saying it (there’s an amusing paper on science humble bragging here).
Telling heroic stories about others could be seen as both story telling and gossip because it establishes, or reinforces reputations and by extension, power. We all know of professors who are ‘legendary’ in their department through the workplace fables that are shared with newcomers. Stories build cultures, but are also important in social bonding. The bonding functions of stories can be clearly seen in the context of whinging or ‘troubles talk’ (which I wrote about in a scholarly way in Troubling talk: assembling the PhD candidate). Briefly, in troubles talk, story telling is usually deployed to share a similar experience and thereby demonstrate solidarity and empathy with the whinger. In summary, stories are very important and being a good story teller is a skill worth developing.
Gossip is more slippery. It can be inter-leaved between any and all of these kinds of talk, so you need to keep your ears peeled to properly hear it. You know you are hearing gossip when the story is about how other people behave or think and has some element of judgment or a ‘lesson’. If the story being told is not a first hand account, it is more likely to be gossip, although most gossip starts with an eye-witness. If a person is trusting you with gossip, that can be a sign of friendship, or that the person is signalling they want to be friends.
Of course, the toxic gossip is the person who is always, relentlessly spreading gossip to undermine other people. Luckily I think these people are easy to spot and relatively rare. The advice often given is to walk away from toxic gossip, but that’s often hard to do, especially if you share an space with them. My favourite way to shut the toxic gossip down is to intentionally change the conversational mode, either by doing some some story telling (with or without humble bragging) or move the conversation back to ‘friendly chat’ by introducing a non-person issue of mutual interest, like the difficulty of finding car parking on campus. Always a winner.
The way you receive gossip – and are seen to receive it – is vitally important in academia and, I imagine, most other organisations. Part of what makes gossip powerful is the way it can build trust. Always shutting it down can be seen by others as a signal that you don’t want to be friendly, share information and be part of the group. If you show you can be trusted with hot gossip (“we never had this conversation, but did you know…”), you can clearly be trusted with other things as well. Many autistic people have told me listening, but not sharing on, is their go-to strategy for dealing with the neurotypical need to gossip. Being a good ‘end node’ of gossip: a person to whom someone can tell gossip, but who is trusted not to spread it further, is very powerful.
It’s hard to talk about, let alone to own up to having an affection for gossip. But a world without gossip would be a very different, and probably not very nice, place. People would not be as willing to co-operate and powerful individuals would be left to run amok. It’s not a coincidence that the first thing that authoritarian regimes try to crack down on is people (often women) talking to each other. So let’s celebrate our collective addiction academic gossip – very carefully 🙂
In gossipy solidarity,
ps: you may have noticed 2 months have passed without a post here. This is the first time in 13 years I’ve had an unintentional break in blog programming. The only thing I can say is that work has been a meat grinder since I got back from sabbatical. It’s taken two months to get my email back under control and my feet under the table. I’m hoping for clearer skies and smoother sailing for the rest of the year.
On the Reg is back. There’s been two episodes since I last posted:
We recorded another last Sunday, but the sound was botched up. We’ll have the next episode out mid October. Please keep sending in your speakpipes and emails, I’m loving them all.
Luckily, ‘Academics talk about Severance’ pod has finally been released! This show is an academic dissection of the popular Apple+ workplace alternative future thriller. You can follow and subscribe here.
I wrote Be Visible or Vanish with Simon Clews to help all researchers present their research, inside or outside the academy. Enter code AFL02 at the checkout for a 20% discount here.
Love the ThesisWhisperer?
I cover all the expenses of operating the Thesis Whisperer out of my own pocket.
Alternatively, consider buying a copy of one of my ebooks directly from this site:
I’ve authored, co-authored or been involved with eight books now – you can find them all on the Buy Books page.
Thanks in advance for the support!