Workplace Gossip and Rumor: The Information Ethics Perspective

AUTHOR
Gordana Dodig-Crnkovic and Margaryta Anokhina

ABSTRACT

Introduction

Gossip as a phenomenon have been investigated in different research fields such as anthropology, psychology and specifically evolutionary psychology, sociology, management, behavioral economy, sociology, and communication studies, (De Backer), organization studies and ethics. The aim of this article is to discuss the ethics of gossip at the working place. We present some interesting results of that research. We discuss the arguments of the proponents of gossip and different understandings of its social function, and we also give a number of critical views.

New ICT media contribute nowadays very effectively to spreading of rumors and gossip. The explosive growth of online communications calls thus for careful analysis of their mechanisms and consequences. Taking the information ethics perspective (Floridi) we discuss communication of information via gossip and its role in social networks. Ethical aspects of gossip are often related to questions of power and privacy, but also to deontological concerns of duty and respect as well as good will.

What is Gossip?

Gossip is sometimes described as a casual or idle talk between friends. Although many definitions are neutral, the term is often used with negative connotations, referring to spreading malicious information, unreliably sourced and unchecked rumors and misinformation. The other negative associations with gossiping is being trivial, invasive, and commonly harmful (Westacott). Several other authors also suggest generalizing the concept of gossip to refer to “talk about other people”. The aim for this “neutralization” of the term is to be able to identify in which cases talk about other people becomes problematic.

Evolutionary Programming of Communication Skills

In order to understand gossip it is instructive to learn about its historical role for evolution of human communication skills. Talking not only about ourselves but also about other people whom we know increases social cohesion through “long-range forces” (information exchanges). Instead of talking with each member of a group individually we use second-hand reports which increase effectiveness of communication and (at least approximate) knowledge about each other.

Bell and Sternberg (2001) have as well suggested that rumors and urban legends are kind of memes using Richard Dawkins’ analogy between ideas that compete for survival and biological genes.

Sharing Norms and Methods of Evaluation – Social Scrutiny

People take notice of each others behaviour, often discuss and critically assess each other. Besides passing information about others, gossip is also a means of calibrating of normativity within a social group. We compare our judgements about other people. However, in classical chat information has limited range, so not everybody gets the information about everybody else. With ICT the situation is radically changed. Information is communicated without any effort and reaches in no time around the globe. We will present our views of the present day gossip in digital media and how ICT are used both for sharing social information, norms and evaluation methods.
A Way of Suppressed to take Revenge on the Powerful and Privileged?

Bergmann, Sousa and number of others find a psychological motivation for gossip in that subordinate groups use gossip to undermine the power of dominant groups. [Just so that you know: men gossip as much as women! Research has shown that the alleged fact that female gossip more than male is not empirically well founded. (It is just a rumor!)] This chapter will address the question of power relationships and information channels – official and unofficial.

Gossiping as a Tool of Workplace Bullying

Many researches emphasize the role of gossiping as a tool for the workplace bullying. Vaida identifies gossiping on the workplace as a “dangerous and insidious” form of workplace violence and calls the gossiping “a form of personal attack”. Westacott expresses the opposite opinion about gossiping and its role in workplace and everyday life and refers to gossiping as “basic human activity that enhances our understanding of human nature and the world around us”. Both Westacott and Sousa discuss, based on utilitarian criteria, the gossiping as a way to bring “good” to the social relations. We will critically discuss all their claims.

The Information Ethics Analysis

In his informational study of moral dynamics, Floridi uses good will, power and information as elements of analysis. The supposition is that (given a constant good will) more or better information implies less evil. The ICT revolution with its information overflow has brought an imbalance between power and information. We will apply Floridi’s approach to information communication, comparing classical workplace gossip and rumors with gossips and rumors spread in online (often also mobile) communities. Pro- and contra- gossiping practices arguments will be discussed within the framework of informational ethics.

Conclusion

We need to re-think what public space such as working place means in terms of relationships with different degrees of closeness, how interpersonal relationships are configured and implemented and how their architecture shapes their functions and meanings. We need more work in this under-researched area to gain an interdisciplinary understanding of gossip and rumor and to be able to form a common understanding of those old human practices as they appear in our ICT age.

REFERENCES

Bergmann JR (1993) Discreet Indiscretions: The Social Organization of Gossip, Aldine de Gruyter, NY

De Backer C (2005) Like Belgian Chocolate for the Universal Mind. Interpersonal and Media Gossip from an Evolutionary Perspective, PhD Thesis, Gent University

Floridi L (2007) Understanding Information Ethics, APA Newsletter on Philosophy and Computers.7.1

Solove DJ (2007) The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet, Yale Univ. Press

Sousa, R (1994) In praise of gossip: Indiscretion as a saintly virtue. In Goodman, B.F. & Ben-Ze’ev, A. (Eds.), Good Gossip, University of Kansas Press.

Vaida P (2006) Gossip- a form of Workplace violence (part 1 and 2).

Westacott E (2000) The ethics of Gossiping. International Journal of Applied Philosophy 14:1, p. 65-90.

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