Wednesday, June 06, 2007


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?