Wednesday, June 06, 2007

 

Gossip

If I knew the literature well enough, I'd start developing a theory of academic gossip. As it is, I'm stuck at the level of observations.

Over the past few months, some really provocative pieces of gossip have been flying around campus. (Happily, I haven't been the star of any of them.) I've heard the same (or closely related) rumors from multiple sources, each from a different angle. As a piece of anthropological fieldwork, it's kind of fun.

Most of the time, there's a kernel of truth in the rumor. That kernel may not be terribly interesting – the Secret Agenda is usually shockingly banal – but it exists.

The fun is in watching people embellish, interpret, and imply.

The embellishment and interpretation are pretty much what you'd expect. Obvious-but-boring motives are discounted for more sensational ones. Listening to the grapevine, you'd think that the only reasons anybody does anything are to hide affairs with coke-whore mistresses.

Implying is the more interesting part. Most of the spreaders of gossip rely on a narrative structure that goes: “you've heard about x and what he's up to. Of course, we know what it's really about...”

The dots at the end of the sentence are the most important part. Replace those with a colon, and the speaker would actually have to put his cards on the table. Successful gossip seems to rely on not-saying. As near as I can tell, that's because actually spelling out what's being implied would expose the basic silliness of the implication. “He's only doing that to protect his mistress.” “Really? He has a mistress? How do you know?” “Well, you know, everybody knows.” “Really? How do they know?” “Well, he's a flirt.” “Does that prove he has a mistress?” “Uh...”

And so on. Of course, if you cross-examine too much, then people stop telling you anything, and that can have consequences, too. Insisting on actual facts is considered pedantic and anti-social. In practice, I'm more likely to apply a grain of salt than to actually interrogate.

Of course, rumors seldom stop at 'facts.' What gives them life is the domino-like series of consequences expected to occur when the Hidden Scandal comes to light.

“When x is forced out, then of course, y will move in, and she has held a grudge against j and k for years.” “When x is forced out, they'll have to bring in someone new from the outside, and heads will roll!” I'll admit that it's great fun to spin out possible scenarios – my current fave involves two brokered nominating conventions in 2008, leading to the eventual election of President Aniston – but there's a difference between playing with possibilities and asserting with certainty. The certainty is what bugs me.

It's especially annoying when you know a relevant fact that actually explains what the rumors purport to explain, but confidentiality rules forbid you from sharing it. The most you can do is to suggest that the rumor is crap. Of course, at that point, you're accused of 'covering up,' and the reasons invented to explain that will be even more baroque. In a perfect world, you could build up enough trust over time that the occasional “trust me” would actually work, but that's just not reality.

As annoying as those rumors can be, though, they serve a sort of bonding function, and the usual kernel of truth somewhere is sometimes relevant. If nothing else, listening carefully can tell you where the speakers are coming from, which is often much more important than the content of what they're saying. If a rumor starts floating around that person x is leaving, and I notice people doing cartwheels in the hallways at the prospect, I pay as much attention to the cartwheels as to the rumor. The rumor may or may not be real, but the emotions certainly are. When the rumor turns out to be false, remembering those cartwheels can come in handy.

I'll take a crack at inductive asynchronous web-enhanced theorizing. If you were to contribute to a general theory of academic gossip, what would you include? Is academic gossip meaningfully different than other varieties of workplace gossip?


Comments:
My uncle worked at a small company. He used rumor to get everyone a Christmas raise. He started the rumor that everyone was getting a 2-3% bonus for Christmas. Eventually they did. He asked his boss about it in the spring and was told that since everyone was so sure about the rumor that was floating around management felt compelled to comply. They were worried that if they didn't people would think it had been canceled, get upset and leave.

Not likely at a college i know but a funny story. Also shows how some turnover can be healthy for all.
 
At my CC we had some petty vandalism but had no clue nor proof of who was doing it. So I let it be known that we were getting close using CSI type technology and when we found out, that person was done. Regardless of who it was -- faculty, staff or student -- they were leaving immediately. End of problem!
 
My email server is down, so I can't email you with a link that you might find interesting (on a wholly different topic):

http://www.insidehighered.com/
news/2007/06/06/rates
 
Most gossipers don't spell out their implications? Weak! If you're going to smear someone, at least have the common courtesy to do it in an entertaining fashion.

A: "You heard about Renee and the contract, right? Well, you know what it's really about?"

B: "No, what?"

A: "Elves. She's in league with elves. They live in her desk drawer."

B: "You don't say!"

At least then it would be fun.

My job experiences have all been outside of academia, and I have yet to work in a gossip-rampant place. Probably a combination of too much employee turnover (preventing any long-brewing resentments and limiting intra-staff bonding and clique formation) and a lack of ties to any institutions. If the boss did something to benefit his coke-whore mistress, why the hell would I care? The odds that any of us will still be working for that same boss in five years is slim, so whoop-de-doo. If the affair damaged the company, that'd come out sooner or later and there'd be hell for him to pay, so again, why should I care?

Over the last few years, I've had a lot of dealings with the federal government. Now there is a hotbed of gossip, probably for the same reasons as academe. Ye gods.
 
Meaningfully different? I don't think so. I used to work in a synagogue and the gossip mill worked in a similar fashion.

The silent ellipsis is a standard tool in the gossip kit. It covers all manner of lurid possibilities. I find my generally poor imagination hinders my ability to cover it, which is also socially frustrating.
 
For what it's worth, soc of work, comm studies and instutional organisation folks generally argue that when you have a gossip problem what you really have is an information relay problem. In short, changes are afoot, but people aren't clear on the rationale for the changes or what the desired results are... so they make up motives and make up probable outcomes. The gossip may be more or less correct.

I heard recently on my campus that after successfully launching professional school type A, that our upper admin is now in hot pursuit of professional school type B. I thught quietly to myself, "Damn! If only we'd managed to get Type B first, because it intersects so well with my line of research. Alas we didn't get it, and this rumour is likely bogus."

And yet, only a few days ago our local newspaper reported that, indeed, upper admin *is* in hot pursuit of professional school type B. Yay.

But it would have been nice not to have the stupid speculation, the cloak-and-dagger sensibility of an Edward Gorey story-book full of shady characters...

Oh for a direct line of communication from the Admin and BOG to Senate to department chairs. But Our senate does not relay information well, and so the rumour mill runs rampant... Sometimes it is correct, bit more often it's just conspiracy theory run amok.
 
of the social gossip that has been told about me, I usually think to h--- with them, but when it happened at my workplace, my job, ie livelihood, was threatened, thus gossip as method of manipulation and control. your version of gossip seems consequenceless, does it always pan out to nothing in academe or are positions indeed lost over it?
 
Oh, I certainly like that "implying" part.

Not sure if any of you get the "Kim Kommando" daily tip emails (she is a computer guru who has a radio show... etc...) When asked about potential incompatibilities between Windows Vista and iTunes, she writes:
With any new operating system, there will be bugs. This is particularly true when you’re dealing with software made by a third party. Take into consideration that the third party here is Apple, and, well, you catch my drift. (emphasis added)

Interesting, considering that Jobs and Gates were just on stage together last week. I thought that hatchet was buried long ago. It's why Mac and PC are such good friends in that commercial!
 
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