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Well I Heard it Through the Grapevine, and I'm Just About to Lose My Social Influence

Okay, so I failed to find a good rhyme for the title, but it got your attention nonetheless. My apologies to Marvin Gaye. In this blog we’ve talked a lot about interpersonal skills and Versatility, especially as it pertains to the workplace and personal effectiveness. As with many things in life, awareness is half the battle. If people tell me that I need to do a better job of listening, and I had never realized that about myself (because I’m not a good listener), then that is an eye-opener. The burden is now on me to hunker down and act on this newly discovered insight (taking action is the second half of the battle).

But sometimes we do something that we know isn’t right, without having to be told it isn’t right, but we just can’t seem to help ourselves. Take gossip, for instance. The urge to chatter about other people is older than Stonehenge. Yet even though tattlers are generally frowned upon, there have been some theoreticians who believe gossip serves important social functions, much like the social bonding that occurs among primates during mutual grooming. However, new research indicates that gossipers are not only disliked, but are also seen as socially weak and lacking influence on others.

In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, researcher Sarah Farley asked participants (mostly female students) to think of someone they knew who “spent a lot of time (or little time) talking about other people when they were not around.” Among several clever manipulations, the word “gossip” was never used as part of the instructions or in explaining the purpose of the study. Farley also had participants think of someone who either said negative things or positive things about people in their absence. They were then asked to rate that person for likeability and social influence (there were also many distractor items, once again to disguise the purpose of the study).

Not surprisingly, people who gossiped frequently were less well-liked than non-gossipers, and negative gossipers were the least liked. More notably, gossipers, and especially negative gossipers, were seen as lacking social influence. These individuals liked to talk about others, but they had no influence on others.

Being disliked and not having any influence is a bad combination. It makes me wonder if we should measure the propensity to gossip as part of our Versatility profile. I’d better wait until I hear something through the grapevine before taking action on this one.

Click here to see the research article abstract.

Farley, S. (2011). Is gossip power? The inverse relationships between gossip, power, and likability. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41 (5), 574-579.

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