Don't talk about me
April 3, 2010 6:42 PM   Subscribe

Where I work, it seems that a certain amount of time is spent talking negatively about other people behind their backs (or even to their face, disguised as a "joke").

I have seen a coworker love all over another person, including paying that person compliments, joking with that person, even hugging that person. And then when that person walks away, coworker in question immediately disparages that person, saying how ugly they are, how they are always late to work, how they really don't do their job, how skanky they are... the list goes on.

I routinely hear coworkers lower their voice to talk about another person. There is no topic that is off limits, from where a person parks their car to what they are wearing or how they talk, from how a person does their job to what they weigh or even where they slept last night.

I regularly have Coworker A approach me to complain about the actions or words of Coworker B. The very next day Coworker B comes to me to make the exact same complaint about Coworker A. I would find it amusing if it weren't so pathetic.

I see this behavior equally in men and women, and equally in the young and older.

I know why people do it. It momentarily makes them feel good, and momentarily makes them feel accepted by their peers. I have heard it described as "venting."

I find myself talking about others, and it is usually when I am angry, jealous and feeling insecure about myself. It is usually more about how I am feeling than about what the other person has or has not done. But I have overheard people talking about me, and I know how much it can hurt. I want to not do this.


1. I have worked at the same place for over 10 years, so I am not familiar with how other places function. Is this normal? Is this the way the world really works? I am not naive, I guess I just want to know if the basic goodness of people is outweighed by their gossipy and mean behaviors?

2. How do I stop myself from engaging in this behavior? It is so easy to do, yet the consequences of it can be so hurtful. I love sarcasm, I love to joke, I love to push the envelope sometimes. But I don't want to be hurtful. How do I keep my spicy personality and still not make others feel bad?

3. Is there anything I can do to combat it in others? I don't want to come off as holier than thou, because god knows I'm not. But the negativity of it all is getting to me.

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I've worked in the same place for 20 years. I work with 2,900 people. It's like high school with paychecks. Yes, it's normal. Yes this is how the world really works. It's been my experience that the basic goodness of people does outweigh gossipy and mean behavior, but YMMV.

Change the subject? Say, ooops, gotta run, late for a meeting?
posted by fixedgear at 6:51 PM on April 3, 2010

1. Yep, normal.

2. Make a sign for your office/work area/cubicle: "Try not to say anything negative about anyone today." Look at the sign often.

3. Make the sign from item #2 large enough for other people to see. Look at the sign pointedly from time to time as appropriate.

The things you're describing are (sadly) human nature. Overcoming human nature is tough. What's worse, if you're in any way successful, you have to combat being a sanctimonious ass (which, it should be noted, is also human nature).

Good luck.
posted by Pragmatica at 6:51 PM on April 3, 2010

I've always found the following phrase to be helpful in these situations: "Oh, I don't know anything about that [big smile]. So, what do you think about [interesting, non-controversial topic]?
posted by embrangled at 6:52 PM on April 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

Sounds like practically every academic department at every university I've ever heard of.
posted by Crotalus at 7:03 PM on April 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've always found the best way to shut this kind of thing down is with a big ol' compliment. For instance, if Coworker A says, "Did you see what Coworker B was wearing today? She looks like a cheap..."

"We can't all have your flare for fashion. You really know how to dress."

The positive note it brings into the conversation makes it difficult to keep insulting someone. In extreme cases in these situations I will tell Coworker A something nice Coworker B recently said about them, regardless of whether Coworker B actually said it.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 7:17 PM on April 3, 2010 [17 favorites]

This is common-to-normal, but it isn't universal. Not every workplace is full of backbiting assholes. Just most of them. The people in question probably justify themselves by saying that everyone does it.
posted by hattifattener at 7:23 PM on April 3, 2010

Maybe you could try deflecting petty negativity with positivity about things that really matter.

"Bob is such a terrible driver! He parked like 5 inches from my door and I couldn't get in my car yesterday. What an idiot!"

"Yeah that's annoying... but he sure saved our asses at that meeting last week."

In general, try to foster respect and understanding. My current employer has minimal pettiness (what I think most there would describe as a healthy level, where basic goodness far outweighs the bad) and I think it is mainly a function of those two things.

On preview, what BBB said.
posted by ropeladder at 7:23 PM on April 3, 2010

1. From the places I've worked, I guess I've been lucky in that this isn't normal, though very frequently there is at least one person like this.

2 & 3. Personally I keep very neutral, uninvolved, and don't respond with any negative comments of my own.

Maybe someone can suggest some good resources (most of the ones I'm familiar with are if someone is specifically attacking you, e.g. "Dealing with Difficult People", Harvard Business School Press). I have heard of this one that might be good: "Managing workplace negativity" by Gary S. Topchik.
posted by SarahbytheSea at 7:36 PM on April 3, 2010

Definitely not found in all workplaces. If you're just not into the kind of negative gossip everyone else is into, I suggest looking for a job at another company. Ten years is a long time to be at the same company (and locked into the same culture). You will benefit from exposure to a different company's culture, different management styles, and different co-workers. I feel for you, because I need harmony at work. I mean, I really, really, need that. Negative gossip would have driven me to quit your company in the first month.
posted by exphysicist345 at 7:46 PM on April 3, 2010

Human beings bond with each other by talking shit about other human beings.

This is why I don't like human beings.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:53 PM on April 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

Find a non work-related topic to discuss with each person. It can be anything. If the person is a dog/cat person, direct the conversation towards their pet. If necessary, make them take a trip down memory lane and ask about how they got their dog, how they trained him, etc. Are they eating something from the new cafe down the street? Ask them about the prices & menu, and remember that food is good topic for that person. Do they look tired? Ask them about their plans for the weekend, and tell them first thing on your agenda is sleeping in. Is she wearing a charming necklace? Compliment her on her accessories, and ask her about how she decides which jewelry to wear with each outfit.

The point is to always have a "safe" topic to retreat to, when a person starts gossiping about another coworker. The safe topic should obviously be non work-related, but also have a positive connotation to it. Whenever I'm at a coworker's desk, I make it a point to scan the area, and make note of anything that can tell me about their hobbies and interests. Sometimes, I've had to be creative and come up with tangents on the spot. I've complimented people on their names, told them about the excellent lunch I had at a Thai restaurant down the street, even remarked about a bird that almost collided with my head outside.

Don't view it as "making small talk." That's too negative. Think of it as a personal investment, because having good coworker relations makes you a valuable employee.

It takes patience, a positive outlook, and creativity to survive in a typical office environment, but it can be done.
posted by invisible ink at 8:07 PM on April 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

This could absolutely be the place I work at now, but this is the first job I've seen it so widespread. Big office, lots of cubicles, almost entirely women.

This is why I have an ipod touch for breaks and lunchtime. Ignore. Ignore. Ignore.
posted by saffry at 8:09 PM on April 3, 2010

I also wanted to add, that I've worked at two large firms over the past few years, and both have had very gossipy, high-school type environments.
posted by invisible ink at 8:09 PM on April 3, 2010

I had this in spades at my last job. I eventually moved to another department with less of a flair for drama, and boy did it make a difference.

I've noticed that most people would be completely embarrassed if what they were gossiping about got back to the person. A simple "Wow, well Bob and I get along..." and turning red will probably nip it in the bud. What they want is someone to yes them to death. What they don't want is the potential for Bob finding out what they said.

Personally, I retreated to the internet, which was confusing to my department full of middle aged workers. I looked busy, but was never rude.
posted by kpht at 8:14 PM on April 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't know if it is universal, but it's much more common than I'd like it to be. I rarely partake... someone has to really have blatantly pissed me off personally before I'll talk shit about them, and even then I try not to say too much and I'm very careful who I say it to. It's not something I'm proud of but sometimes the urge to vent about someone's assholery just wins out. (And if I am pissed off at someone enough to vent about them, I'm sure not going to sweetly gush all over them to their face. Polite and neutral is about all I can manage in that case.)

Other people often badmouth each other to me in ways that never cease to surprise me. People act like best buddies to each other's faces and bitch like hell behind their backs. When someone says something nasty to me about someone else, I generally say something along the lines of what embrangled suggested: "Hmmmm... I don't know anything about that. She's always been (or seemed) nice enough to me, but I don't work with her all that closely."

I've also done the polite but not particularly interested thing: "Really?" "Huh. I've never noticed that." "Wow, that's really something." It doesn't shut them up necessarily, but it gives the person a chance to vent and doesn't require me to add another two cents on top of theirs. I figure as long as I don't pass the nasty gossip on to anyone else, there's no harm done.

I've never overheard anyone saying anything nasty about me, but I just assume they are since they treat me the same as the people they talk shit about. I try not to worry about it too much as long as I don't hear it. If I actually overheard something about myself, I'd be hurt but not at all surprised. Knowing that this is how people are in general is a major reason I tend to be standoffish. Out of all the people I work with and have gotten to know, there are only a couple I trust not to backbite, and that's because they've never badmouthed anyone else to me.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:30 PM on April 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Do what BusyBusyBusy said. Also, start looking for another job. This kind of behavior is not universal.

It is, however, not uncommon. Whether people's basic goodness can outweigh this, I'm not sure. IME you can get so inured to behavior like this that you fail to spot how dangerous it is until someone suffers real damage. Along the lines of getting character-assassinated out of a job. Please also be aware that, if you stop participating in it, you risk painting a target on yourself.
posted by tel3path at 3:44 AM on April 4, 2010

"Can You Believe How Mean Office Gossip Can Be?" might be of interest.

Relevant passages:

"If, say, an office rival seems poised to trash one of your absent allies, Dr. Hallett suggests you make a “pre-emptive positive evaluation.” A quick “Isn’t she doing a great job?” might be enough to stop the attack.


"And if that doesn’t work, Dr. Hallett suggests you try an even simpler tactic that was used successfully at the teachers’ meetings — and that is available in any workplace anytime. In fact, it’s one of the tactics that distinguishes office gossip from nonoffice gossip. When the going gets tough, when the gossip gets mean, you always have one reliable escape line: “Don’t we have some work to do here?”"
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:47 AM on April 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

It is normal in that it happens all the time, but "abnormal" in that it shouldn't.

In my experience (I go to a lot of different offices in my work), you can almost always break down the phenomenon to one or two people who are the "carriers" of this attitude. The prototypical head cheerleader type. (Not that it is a female trait, I just can't think of a similar male archetype at the moment.)
posted by gjc at 7:05 AM on April 4, 2010

I think I'm going to print out this thread and just *happen* to leave it out at work somewhere for the others to see.

Because, yes, this could be my workplace 100 times over. Ten years of the same 5 people talking negative sh*t about everybody else and I am so sick of it.

#1: Very common, I'm afraid.

#2: Good suggestions already, above. Just knowing that it is easy to get sucked into that mindset will help you to avoid it. Kudos to you for being on the right track.

#3. Bring up your dissatisfaction with the negativity during your next evaluation and have it documented. Maybe your supervisor/manager will address the situation without pinning it on you. Then you won't be labeled as the "holier than thou" one of the bunch.
posted by ourroute at 9:28 AM on April 4, 2010

How do I keep my spicy personality and still not make others feel bad?

Work friends/colleagues can make jokes and have fun without it being mean, I think. Think teasing but where it's not mean but in a context of love or respect or kindness. How you might kid around with your sister or your non-work friend. Like, if someone is crazy for some show, or sports, or animals, or Barbie, or whatever, telling them, "Oh, my god, I thought of you last night, there was a family on TV who had turned their whole house into a museum for Barbie, did you see that? You should totally do that." That's not a great example, but the point is, I think there can be humor in the workplace that is about how weird humans are, about our foibles, about our strange interests and quirks, but that is not mean. And if you are spicy and sarcastic and smart and kind, you can be a leader or trendsetter in that kind of fun and ultimately loving banter.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 12:32 PM on April 4, 2010

In my classroom, on the first day, I make it very clear: Sarcasm isn't allowed. From me or from them, in any direction.
Jaws fucking drop. In every period. It's like I took away their thumbs and stuck them in a jar.
Then, when the inevitable question of why comes up, I simply say:
"Sarcasm is the coward's road. If you're using sarcasm, you're not being witty or funny or modern. You're being passive aggressive because you aren't brave or secure enough in what you're saying.
Saying the opposite of what you mean to emphasize your real hidden meaning is the epitome of fear. You don't have to be afraid. I won't mock you or insult you or call you stupid. I'm very happy in my life here and at home, so I don't need to hurt others for pleasure. If you screw up, I'll tell you and you'll know. Your grades will reflect it and I'll talk to you about how to do better.
But- if you're sarcastic? I'll treat it as a violation of one of my rules and proceed accordingly."

And we move on from there.
And I show them that I mean it.
On my wall is a huge Rasterbated poster that says: "If you want to be a hero, act like a hero."
It's probably going to change to ask: "Are you the hero of your own life story?"

If people are talking that much shit about each other:
they don't have enough work
you have too many workers
you've never been hit with a hostile workplace allegation/lawsuit

My advice: set one day as a 'Sarcasm-Free Day'. Have everyone agree that if A gets through the day without sarcasm or ?, they get to leave early. For each violation, they stay after and file or clean-up or whatever.
posted by flowerofhighrank at 1:16 PM on April 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

#1 rule at work: Worry about yourself

Monitor what you say. Monitor the job you're doing. Monitor the impression you leave with people.

Everything everyone else is doing will work itself out.
posted by shew at 1:50 PM on April 4, 2010

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