No one gossips about other people's secret virtues.
February 22, 2011 8:32 PM   Subscribe

How do you deal with rampant gossip in an academic context?

I'm a first-year PhD student in a field that has a few different sub-fields spread out over different departments, ranging from humanities to social science. My department (History) is on the humanities side, and I'm one of very few people within my department in this particular field. Most of my in-field peers are on the more social science-y side. I'm working on a long-term project that is more grounded in the social science area, but includes students from all the relevant fields (my department and an even more humanities-y literature-type department). The students from the social science-y department have significantly more experience in the methods we're using.

I really love the work and have been devoting a lot of extra time to it (including learning the technical methods as well and as fast as I can and doing lots of outside research), and as a result I've gotten public and private praise from fellow students and from the professors in charge. I do really like my fellow students, but I'm getting something else from them: constant uninvited gossip about the other students working on the project. I'm hearing about other humanities students who aren't picking up the technical skills fast enough, social science students who are jealous of other social science students, people from both sides who don't care enough, basically just everyone casting doubt on everyone else's motives and abilities. And then everyone acts chummy face-to-face.

I understand that some level of competition is inevitable when a group of ambitious people working on the same topic is stuck together for a long period of time, and some of the criticisms I'm hearing are more or less valid, but the gossip and two-facedness is kind of overwhelming. I'm not much of a gossip myself-- I think that most people do the best they can, and that it's unnecessarily mean to pick apart people who are genuinely trying. I don't offer gossip, but I can see what makes me an attractive person to vent to: I'm decent enough at the work that I'm not slowing anyone down, and because of the way the field is broken down departmentally, I'm probably not going to be competing with these people for jobs. But it's still messing with my head and making me a little paranoid-- if these people are so willing to tear down their peers to me, who they barely know, what are they saying about me to other people-- or worse, the professors?

So far, I've been dealing by responding as little as possible when the gossip starts, offering alternative explanations for some perceived slight ("she's just nervous; she didn't mean to challenge your work; she's trying"), and changing the subject. Gossip just seems so entrenched in the culture of this department that I'm realizing that there's nothing I can do to make it stop. And hey, while my department's culture is much more laid-back than this, it's academia, so I've got to figure out how to deal with the nasty whispers sooner or later. So, my question: what are some ways to keep your head on straight and continue to foster positive professional relationships when you're in a gossipy environment, academic or not?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
in my experience this type of shit is par for the course. i was never in a more back-stabby, passive aggressive, talking-behind-people's-backs environment than when I was a grad student. Try not to get sucked into it, and limit what you tell people. Never, ever say anything remotely negative about someone if you would not be ok with it getting back to them.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 8:43 PM on February 22, 2011 [15 favorites]

I'm not much of a gossip myself

I think that this is key. In my experience, the most you can do to prevent gossip about yourself is to be respectful. Obviously, some people are incorrigible; but if you gossip (or are otherwise mean or petty) yourself, you just make it easier for them.
posted by Maxa at 9:06 PM on February 22, 2011

For what it's worth, through most of grad school I had no idea of the departmental gossip. (Even when I was the one being gossiped about, because for various personal reasons I was a particularly juicy subject. I only found out about this years later!) This is because I basically ignored most people in my department. I'd like to say that this is because I had a social life outside of my department; this isn't really true, I was mostly alone. But better to be alone than stuck in that pit of drama.

I'm probably not going to be competing with these people for jobs.

maybe it's just me, but I don't feel like that has much to do with the gossip. In particular, the people I would have wanted to gossip about -- were I the sort to do that -- were people who were far from the area I worked in, and therefore probably least likely to be competing with me for jobs.

so I've got to figure out how to deal with the nasty whispers sooner or later.

who says you have to? If you find these sort of nasty whispers particularly hard to deal with, maybe you shouldn't be in academia. It's not for everyone. (My advice, however, should be taken with a very large grain of salt.)
posted by madcaptenor at 9:51 PM on February 22, 2011

I was never in a more back-stabby, passive aggressive, talking-behind-people's-backs environment than when I was a grad student.

You know the line about academic arguments being all the more vicious because nothing's at stake? It has a corollary in the gossip, which makes fishwives look circumspect.

Turn it into a game of cultivating the most perfectly neutral "oh, really?" you can. Then you'll be known as "The Oh Really Person", but that's not a bad thing.
posted by holgate at 9:55 PM on February 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think that this is key. In my experience, the most you can do to prevent gossip about yourself is to be respectful. Obviously, some people are incorrigible; but if you gossip (or are otherwise mean or petty) yourself, you just make it easier for them.

Disagree. In grad school, I heard plenty of gossip about non-gossipy parties. Mostly about how weird it was that they didn't gossip, and how it must have meant that they were shy or cliquey or snotty or whatever.

Something to remember about gossip is that it actually does serve a social function in settings like this that have little or nothing to do with the person being gossiped about. When someone gossips with you, that indicates that they feel they can trust you, that they're trying to forge a relationship with you, that they're willing to share information with you. It's a sign that they like you. Is it a sort of weird, fucked up sign that they like you? Maybe. But know that if you, say, seem judgmental about the gossip or even just answer it with silence, you might be perceived as rejecting their overtures. You'll be marking yourself as an outsider, aligning yourself with the person being talked about . . . or something. In my experience, nonparticipants in settings like these make the gossipy parties nervous, because, in a way, they're rejecting a subtle gesture of friendship.

I think it's fine to refuse to say things you wouldn't want the parties in question to hear. I think answering complaints with empathy is fine. It's the information exchange that's important here. Usually a note of empathy can change the tenor of the conversation, particularly if you don't do it in a way that makes it seem like you're shutting the conversation down. It quietly signals to the gossips that you consider the party in question to be a part of the social circle, too.

But it's still messing with my head and making me a little paranoid-- if these people are so willing to tear down their peers to me, who they barely know, what are they saying about me to other people-- or worse, the professors?

I think this makes a lot of people uneasy, but I've found it's true whether you choose to engage in gossip or not: people will always be willing to tear others down. People will gossip about you even if you refuse to gossip. Your not participating in gossip has nothing to do with what other people do. Again, remind yourself that gossip rarely has anything to do with the person being gossiped about, and remember that you can't control other people--all you can do is do the best to act in accordance with your own ethics, yourself.

(My personal policy is that people can gossip all they want about me, since I can't control it, and if someone needs to resolve something with me they can come to me themselves. But I realize that I'm unusually zen about this kind of thing.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:00 PM on February 22, 2011 [12 favorites]

Some departments are worse than others. I got one degree in a department where people jockeyed for position and tore each other down. I got my last degree in a program where people were generous with each other, and it made things so much better.
The hard part is to be generous to people, even when they are being small or unkind. Try to focus on creating the culture in which you would like to live, and avoid indulging in pettiness.
posted by pickypicky at 10:00 PM on February 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh, and one last thing. The best way to be zen about people gossiping about you is to refuse to hear second-or-third-hand accounts. When someone says, "You won't believe what so-and-so said about you," tell them that you're not interested. It's a weirdly awesome way to avoid the soul sucking drama that inevitably follows those words.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:02 PM on February 22, 2011

My wife used to work in an embassy where gossip was an important part of the activity. She's really not into that kind of thing. So, after a while, with a fellow co-worker, they began to pour stupid and imaginary infos inside the network, just to check what kind of feedback they would get (you know, I've heard she has an affair with... or He's really into that kind of thing or Do you know what he said ?...). It was some kind of an experiment.

The important thing here I think is accepting that the mechanism is somehow like gravity itself. But after all, you can as well consider it with a smile. I can understand that what my wife was saying was a little bit outrageous, but you could start with something far-fetched which would be innocuous to the persons you mention and at the same time point to the person delivering the gossip that you don't necessarily focus on the same things - I mean, you don't focus on weaknesses, but rather capabilities - (like I think someone said that : he's a karaoke genius, she's writing a novel, she's having a running correspondance with a famous writer, he can play harpsichord etc...)

It would put you in a less submissive position, it would add some fun at this interaction without being harmful, and you would eventually get rid of that garbage, when the gossipers would find that you're just not into the cutting stuff.
posted by nicolin at 11:51 PM on February 22, 2011

Agreeing with PhoBWanKenobi in about everything here, while I admit that extensive gossip bores me and/or makes me uncomfortable as well.

If you accept that gossip is some type of networking (as opposed to an annoying habit), you can actually learn to wield the tool according to your own preferences. Morph your mild gossip acceptance with showing interest in the person you're talking to (which is pretty much the standard answer when people here ask "how do I network").

Of course, if someone comes to you and starts ranting about how someone is a jerk or whatnot, you can't just lean over and say "that's a very interesting aspect. What made you think he is?" or something. But one can engage in such conversations without actually committing oneself in any uncomfortable ways, and seem interested nevertheless.

But I see that you're already halfway there:
I don't offer gossip, but I can see what makes me an attractive person to vent to

So what you need to develop is a mental oilskin. Well. If someone has something to say about a person of whom you have no deeper information/special opinion, just smile, sip and nod, don't engage your brains with the talk. If it's about a friend, or someone with whom you have an issue yourself, you could always cautiously converse about these people, there's little wrong with that.

[all that said, nicolin, I can't see that playing the harpsichord is a positive qualifier in the world we live in. Playing how is the least one should ask. Most would say: play WHAT? (Harpsichordist speaking...)]
posted by Namlit at 1:07 AM on February 23, 2011

It's not enough to say "academia is like that". Academia is not some exceptional hothouse for cultivating the worst kinds of personal immaturity, as many academics are fond of believing. Atrocious behaviour is found in all kinds of environments and sectors, and leaving academia to escape this is no better than jumping into the fire to escape the frying pan.

Participating in gossip isn't a solution either. If you participate in it there's a high chance of passing on something that is false, either in fact or in interpretation. There is a commandment against that kind of thing because it's that serious. I've seen blameless people driven out of jobs over stuff like this.

My advice is to, without being heavy-handed, counter each negative bit of gossip with "oh, well, I think they're really nice" or "well I've always appreciated how good he is at x". If you can't do this and/or can't do it without being stilted, just give a blank look, followed by a change of subject if necessary.

And in the bigger picture, keep a strict firewall between your work and your personal life, don't confide in cow-orkers, and be very selective about the kinds of people you associate with. Bad behaviour isn't some kind of inevitable thing you just have to live with. If you're in an environment that's riddled with it to the point where it's threatening, don't kid yourself that you have nowhere else to go. There is always somewhere else to go.
posted by tel3path at 3:36 AM on February 23, 2011

Gossip and competition in academia are totally normal. You do not have to participate (and it is to your credit if you don't), but also don't be too surprised or disappointed in your colleagues. It is normal behaviour. Not required, but normal. Separate your personal from your professional life. Professional life: judge people entirely on their output and nothing else. Personal life: well, that's up to you.

I recommend reading Acid Tongues and Tranquil Dreamers. It's an easy, fun read about how competition and rivalry fueled the work of people like Newton (who pretty much believed he was God's chosen voice on earth and how dare anyone else lay claim to his special territory) and Watson and Crick (portrayed as eager students who basically wanted to win a race that was bound to be won soon by either them or a few others in the field), among others.
posted by molecicco at 6:33 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

PhoBWanKenobi's advice is so insightful. I'm here to offer a different perspective on the same sort of analysis. I'm here to admit, somewhat shamefacedly, that I'm a gossipy grad student.

I gossip to fit in and forge social bonds and also, often, to blow off steam when I'm stressed out. It's usually exactly the sort of gossip you're describing, the kind where peoples' academic performance is called into question in various ways. Do I think this is a good idea? Nope, not particularly. But I keep doing it anyways because the temptation to do it, and the culture of doing it, is so strong. Sometimes I feel bad about saying something mean-spirited and resolve to stop. But I never really stop successfully in the long run.

But here's the thing. You seem to be especially bothered by the face-to-face friendliness, which I gather you perceive as being fake when you hear the same people say mean things about each other in private. But for me, it's really the gossip part that's fake in some sense. I'm friendly to my fellow students because I genuinely like most of them. I fully expect that similar things get said about me behind my back, but I feel pretty confident that for the most part, it's taken only about as seriously as I take the stuff other people say to me. Which is to say not seriously at all -- ultimately I make up my own mind about other students and disregard the gossip, because the gossip is just the noise of social negotiation and has very little real content.

Oh, and when I occasionally happen to come into possession of juicy little tidbits about peoples' private lives (rather than academic performance), I am very, very careful to keep it to myself. That kind of gossip, I think, can really be hurtful. The kind of gossip you're describing is a ubiquitous, if perhaps unpleasant, part of group life.
posted by ootandaboot at 7:15 AM on February 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Like ootandaboot, I'm a gossipy grad student. Also like ootandaboot, I gossip to bond with my fellow grad students. I don't think I gossip to release stress; I call that complaining with a target. But I'm going to go a little farther and actually defend gossiping in general.

First, gossiping about people's personal lives is very useful. Of course if someone swears me to secrecy, I won't mention anything. But sometimes bits of information regarding personal detail come along that are very useful to me in a professional sense. There have also been personal information that's been useful to me in a personal sense (hi Boyfriend!) but that's another question. For example, if someone is having a hard time in their personal life (illness, death, divorce), it can explain why someone is extra cranky, unhelpful or hostile. This helps me a lot because I tend to take things very personally. When I know there's something external bothering a person, I can cut them a lot more slack.

Gossiping about people's professional lives is even more useful in academics. I've been thinking about post docs and I've been talking to a bunch of people about potential supervisors. I could ask the same questions over email but I don't think that I'd get as honest answers as I do 'gossiping'. I've been told that one potential supervisor is a bit sexist, for example, which I would never get if I just went by his publication record or even by what his students say (although they admit it too). When I apply to these places I expect there will be gossip about me - whether I can work hard, whether I can publish, etc - if the person has a connection that knows me. I fully expect that some form of gossip (chatting with friends/colleagues) will get me my post doc. Sure, publications too but if I barely scraped up my pubs and everyone in the lab hated me, that'd be passed on.

Anyway, all this to say that "gossip" as I define it has more to do with passing on information. It almost sounds like what you're complaining about is too much "complaining". But also, with the information you now have, if you had to pick co-authors for a paper wouldn't you know who to pick or not?
posted by hydrobatidae at 9:22 AM on February 23, 2011

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