How to Separate Harmless Work Chatter From Gossip

Posted June 15, 2018 4:47 p.m. EDT

A recent Workologist column invited readers to share personal rules for separating harmless small talk from potentially troublesome gossip. Here are mine.

1. If the matter is about myself, I only discuss it with a colleague if I’d be comfortable with everyone in the organization knowing it.

2. If it’s about someone else, I only say it if I would also say it directly to the person I’m talking about.

3. If in doubt, I keep quiet. — J.C., CINCINNATI

I received many thoughtful and useful responses, and this one is a perfect starting point. It acknowledges that workplace gossip isn’t just a matter of what we say about others. It also concerns what we share about ourselves — and with whom.

This exercise started several weeks ago with a question from a reader who worried that repeating harmless-seeming information about a co-worker’s vacation plans may have accidentally gotten that colleague in trouble. I was sympathetic, since this sounded like small talk inadvertently gone bad. But a number of you countered that, in fact, this reader was a blabbermouth who deserved blame for the episode.

That surprised me, so I asked for your personal gossip rules of thumb, to see if we could come up with a set of best practices for the nonwork chatter that’s an inevitable part of the workplace. And you did not disappoint. Here is my distillation of the highlights from readers’ gossip rules.

All About You

Before you worry about what others might say about you, or what you say about others, think about your own sharing habits. Susan Peppercorn of Positive Workplace Partners, a career coaching firm in Boston, offered her observations.

“Don’t get too personal. A good rule of thumb in any business relationship is not to reveal anything you don’t want to be repeated.”

She said this could be tricky precisely because we crave social connection — and we spend a lot of time at work. Just be thoughtful about how you connect.

“Employees who have friends at work report higher levels of productivity and job satisfaction than those who don’t. But we don’t need to spill our guts to office friends.”

As a different reader pointed out, the social media age seems to encourage us to broadcast our personal lives. Be careful about that in the context of the workplace, Peppercorn said, because it is a de facto social network with no privacy settings.

“Know your fellow gossiper. Don’t share information with someone unless you can trust their discretion.”

Other People’s Business

Suppose you’re good at staying mum about your own business, but your colleagues can’t seem to stop sharing theirs. When does talking about someone else cross the line from benign conversation to thoughtless indiscretion?

Ruth Levine Arnold, a social communication coach in Waban, Massachusetts, who works with adolescents and adults in the workplace, wrote in to offer her guidelines. One strategy is to restrict water cooler small talk to weather, sports, entertainment, music and so on.

Facts and scores are pretty safe, she said.

“To me, gossip generally means that people are talking about the personal/private affairs of someone who is not present — without permission.”

Even sharing what seems like workaday details about other colleagues — like their vacation plans — can go astray as they’re passed around, Arnold said.

“Like in the ‘telephone’ game, information is easily distorted.”

W.D., a reader in Maplewood, New Jersey, said it was often best to avoid speaking for someone else. “I have one basic guideline — let people tell their own story. For example, someone asks, ‘What is Anna’s ethnic background?’ Even if I know, I respond, ‘I think you should ask Anna that question.'”

Another reader added that it was better to err on the side of discretion.

‘You will never have the reputation as being someone who ‘always knows,’ but you will always have the reputation as a trustworthy person.”

Who’s Listening?

A few readers zeroed in on another dimension of workplace chatter: the audience.

Even if you’re confident that everybody knows about Colleague X’s new hobby or family news, never yak about an absent third party when a manager is listening, said Burt Bloom, a reader in Brooklyn.

“No matter how chummy the atmosphere, one should never include an administrator in any discussion of a personal nature.”

This is not to say managers are inherently devious or untrustworthy. It simply acknowledges that there may be conflicts or agendas you don’t know about. Tailor what you say depending on who can hear it.

Sally Mills of Coburn, Pennsylvania, confessed to joining in office chitchat, but said she tried to be careful about what she discussed.

“There are lots of things to talk about besides other people, and if I do hear anything about a third party I never repeat it.

“An interesting and pleasant corollary to that rule is that most people know that I never repeat what I hear about others — so I hear a lot of juicy bits fit for a novel!”