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Gossip in the Workplace

May 9, 2009 | by Richard Greenberg

If not for recycled rumors, catty appraisals, backhanded compliments and sarcastic asides, how would we ever make interesting conversation?

You've just sent e-mail.

And by contemporary standards it's a real gem, which is to say it's glib and gossipy and it shows that you sure know how to filet somebody. You are, in short, everything a post-modern communicator should be. This time, you've got the goods on somebody in the office, and you've just shared the wealth with the click of a mouse.

And then it dawns on you.

The e-mail went to the wrong place. You sent it to the trashee, who happens to be your boss. A minute ago you were a budding Howard Stern. Now you're toast.

Maybe not. Technology has an answer -- a computer feature that automatically delays the transmission of an electronic message so it can be retrieved, if necessary. It's new. It's for people who need to unring bells.

Judaism has long offered another option -- don't ring the bell in the first place. Don't gossip.

Judaism has long offered another option -- don't ring the bell in the first place. Don't gossip. Unless it is absolutely necessary, don't communicate things that might hurt others. Words are powerful. Therefore, think before you open your mouth, unfurl your pen, punch a keyboard or click a mouse. Or as my mother says (and her mother before her said): "If you can't say something nice about somebody, don't say it."

Clearly, this is an uphill fight at a time when character assassination ranks as one of our leading blood-sports. Hurtful talk has become a mainstay of the airwaves, but it's elsewhere too. It is the background buzz in everyday chit-chat, and we've all made contributions.

Gossip seems to satisfy a deep-seated psychological need for self-esteem. What better way to pump up our image than by using negative talk to prove that we are clever and knowledgeable and otherwise superior to lesser mortals? And if saying it provides perverse pleasure, so does listening to it -- unless, of course, it's about us. Thus the onslaught of recycled rumors, catty appraisals, backhanded compliments and sarcastic asides. They all trip off the tongue so effortlessly. If not for them, one wonders, how would we ever make interesting conversation?

It is possible. But it takes practice; and it is worth it. Our tradition frowns on gossip -- or almost anything even remotely resembling it.


Here's a workplace example. You want the Acme account so bad you can taste it, and you're not the only one. How do you snag it? How do you tip the balance in your favor? By subtly dishing a little dirt on your competition, maybe?


Or say you want to get in good with Carol in accounting. You could take the low road and tattle on Phil in purchasing. Turns out he'd said some catty stuff behind her back and you overheard it. Then again, you could stifle the urge to be a busybody. You could, for example, keep your mouth closed and not make a bad situation worse. Remember: If it's not nice, it's probably not Jewish.

(There are, of course, common-sense exceptions to the above rules. Negative information can be disseminated, for example, if it will prevent someone from suffering harm.)

All in all, though, it's a pretty exacting standard, which is why it is too often honored in the breach. But when it's adhered to, the effect is uplifting and refreshing. And the practical benefits are many.

In the workplace, verbal sensitivity can make for smoother communications, enhance teamwork and overall productivity.

In a business organization, for example, verbal sensitivity can make for smoother communications, which enhance teamwork and probably overall productivity. It stands to reason. Intra-office sniping and intrigue chip away at authority and generally poison the workplace climate. If you can't trust your co-workers, the job won't get done right and business will suffer.

Likewise, individual human beings suffer mightily, and sometimes irreparably, when their reputation is unjustly harmed. That bell, sometimes, cannot be unrung. Let's say, for example, that an unsubstantiated rumor is floated that a prominent figure has been cheating on his wife. That alone could wreck his marriage, decimate his family and ruin his career. How does he undo the damage?

While we ponder that, it's worth noting that self-censorship does not stifle interesting conversation, as I had once feared, nor does it throw a wet blanket on companionship. If anything, it enhances it. Those who watch their words still manage to bond and find interesting things to talk about even when they don't resort to backbiting and other forms of character assassination.

And think of the health benefits, too. Nobody gets a stiff neck from watching their back.


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