The upside of teasing, gossip, and eavesdropping at the office

Soccer star Willian’s perfect wink.
Soccer star Willian’s perfect wink.
Image: Reuters/Paulo Whitaker
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I’ll never forget the day I accidentally caused a bomb scare at work.

I left a metal briefcase, a gift that was sent to me, sitting near a colleague’s desk, unmarked and unattended. Long story short: Out of an abundance of caution, a colleague called the police and the floor was evacuated. I was beyond embarrassed. When everything was sorted out and we were allowed to return to the building, only one person pierced my bubble of burning shame. Passing my desk in a flash, a former manager and resident quip master asked me sternly if I was expecting any other deliveries, or was it safe to get back to work.  Then he grinned.

I was being mocked—it was a huge relief.

The feeling comes to mind now as I think about a paradox seen in surveys of employees who have worked from home since the start of the pandemic: Workers say they miss their colleagues, but they’re also tired of being in constant contact—with their colleagues.

Perhaps what we’re actually missing is not just non-verbal communication or spontaneous encounters, but also the specific modes of conversing that require both. Without them, life feels flatter, and our days are a little less memorable.

The subtext in good-natured teasing can be misread online

Teasing is one example of a communication style that has disappeared. Psychologists have studied how it functions across hierarchies and within close relationships, determining that teasing is pretty central to our social lives and the development of social intelligence. In a fascinating defense of teasing published in 2008, Dachner Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, explained that “provocative commentary” like teasing is often disguised to suggest that the words should not be taken literally. “At the same time, teasing isn’t just goofing around,” he wrote. “We tease to test bonds, and also to create them. To make it clear when we’re teasing, we use fleeting linguistic acts like alliteration, repetition, rhyming and, above all, exaggeration to signal that we don’t mean precisely what we’re saying.”

In the modern workplace, acceptable teasing respects certain boundaries: someone’s appearance, accent, age, and other fixed markers of identity are out of bounds. When it’s friendly, however, teasing can be a powerful social lubricant. That’s partly because it tends to unlock parts of the teasee’s suppressed personality and help them find balance, according to The School of Life, a site run by philosopher Alain de Botton. The contrarian at the office may need an invitation to be more agreeable, and winking commentary about her intractable opinions and self-seriousness could do the trick.

Even if the teaser is not consciously setting out to recalibrate someone else’s state, they intuitively know exactly what to say, and how to say it, to have that effect. They know that “there’s an ambitious, eager self quietly despairing within the lazy man” and they can sense that “the gloomy, disenchanted cynic harbours a more cheery, sunny sub-self in need of more recognition,” according to The School of Life.

Gentle teasing, I’d add, can telegraph, We see your imperfections, and we accept you, anyway. And for the bystander, watching someone else be elbowed with kindness and (hopefully) laugh about it can reaffirm a connection, or remind us to be gentler if we’ve been judgmental.

In my experience, playful teasing has been a constant but not always a prominent feature of office communication. Before the pandemic, it surfaced now and then to work its magic. The conditions need to be just so, as the hosts of the No Stupid Questions podcast discussed on a recent episode. For example, because teasing is often a gentle way of suggesting a need for an adjustment, and usually contains some kernel of truth, a subtle message can take on too much weight when it comes from people who actually hold more power than their targets. In that case, it comes off as hurtful and passive-aggressive. Therefore, Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania advises, “[y]ou should tease up, and not down.” Teasing can also be an ideal tool in disagreements, allowing a person to speak frankly, but not directly.

But, as the podcast hosts also noted, it’s a gamble to tease over Zoom or in a text chat, where you can’t pick up on all the subtle clues that you’ve crossed a line into casual bullying or insubordination. There’s no great way to say, “By the way, JK,” says Duckworth. Arguably, it’s even harder in a pandemic year when a person’s gloominess, shyness, or absent-mindedness may be connected to real stressors outside of work that are not being aired because we’re also making less small talk.

The professor’s advice to listeners is to wait until we’re back to in-person meetings to joke around with coworkers this way, respecting the limits of our current mediums. Sadly, I have to agree. 

It’s too easy not to gossip as remote workers

Like teasing, gossip can have a cruel edge, but it’s mostly harmless and often bursting with useful nuggets. At work, gossip tells you who’s looking for a new gig, or how someone actually feels about another person’s policy, emboldening you to voice your own concerns. Post-meeting hallway gossip was once the after-party you didn’t want to miss.

Even when the content of gossip is dull and disconnected from your day-to-day obligations, gossiping remains a source of bonding, which everyone craves at a biological level. In fact, gossip literally soothed people in one University of Toronto study, and was found to encourage cooperation. Through gossip, we all absorb cultural rules and warnings: Because it was spread through the grapevine, you are spared a first-hand experience of Danny in accounting’s underhandedness, or Maria in marketing’s short fuse.

But whereas in person it’s often impossible to suppress the urge to gossip, the remote office makes it only too easy to stop gossip’s flow. Not only is there now less to gossip about, but the pipes are also frozen by fear. Consider that chats in workplace messaging apps like Slack are unprotected and searchable by management. A phone or video call may be more suitable, but they usually take time to schedule and the gossip you possess may feel less pressing by the time your check-in with friends rolls around. By then, you also may have decided that sharing your intel could reflect poorly on you or leave you exposed. In fact, just typing instead of speaking gives a person enough time to back out of the gamble.

Sherry Turkle, an author and director of MIT’s Technology and the Self Lab has identified this problem with relying too heavily on text-based messaging apps over in-person meetings and thus all but removing spontaneity from communications. In previous research, people told her that the problem with live conversations were that they happened in real time, meaning you had less control, she told The Atlantic, “They had this fantasy that they could be perfect if they kept the conversation on the screen.” But it’s our faults that make us more human to each other, of course, and thus in-person encounters that more easily cultivate empathy and intimacy, as she notes.

Sure, an office can function without either, but less effectively, with less engaged workers. Whether at home or the office, strong relationships create meaning, buffering us from alienation, loneliness, and stagnation.

Eavesdropping may be rude but also useful in the workplace

No one likes to admit it, but we’ve all eavesdropped in the workplace. In open-plan offices, in particular, it was impossible to ignore other people’s conversations. It’s also just a human thing to do, and a common way that people manage uncertainty, says Leila Bighash, assistant professor of communication at the University of Arizona who has studied this habit,  In that quest, we’re not alone. “Even animals do it,” she says.

Eavesdropping at work also served a valuable purpose. Without it, you were not going to overhear the conversational snippet that might instruct you to prepare for troubling company news. Every new development would come as a surprise. “You could eavesdrop on something gossipy,” says Bighash, “but also to get information that you need to do your job.”

Once upon a time, eavesdropping could help explain a manager or colleague’s mood before you made dangerous assumptions. If you were the type to admit to eavesdropping, it opened windows to connect over a work idea or a shared irritation—perhaps with someone higher up the chain of command, the COO you’d never boldly Slack or video call today.

Eavesdropping allowed those with less status to keep tabs on the powerful to a degree, or supplied currency workers could keep “in their back pocket to bring up at the appropriate moment,” perhaps with a superior, says Bighash. But today, the ability to eavesdrop sits with those who already hold power. “With everyone being online there’s potential for the company to be keeping track,” she notes.

For now, unless you’ve planted a bug in someone’s laptop or computer, the closest the average person can get to eavesdropping is lurking in public Slack channels, says Bighash, something you’re basically expected to do. If a company maintains open calendars, you could look to see who is meeting with whom, and make certain inferences about what it means, she suggests, but that feels closer to snooping and is unlikely to yield solid data.

As more teams work remotely, companies will have to figure out whether this specific kind of social information gathering was a good thing—perhaps it enriches company culture and helps people identify with the group, she adds. If that’s true, the next question would be, how do you replicate it in an all-remote or hybrid set-up?

Technology can’t solve this problem

To be sure, I don’t believe that we need to look a person in the eye or see their body language to properly read their moods or intentions. One small study recently found we can hear gestures, and we can certainly pick up on someone’s tone over the phone or on Zoom. Even on Slack, you come to understand a person’s habits in time and notice when an entire group deviates from customary protocols to embrace or reject a person or idea.

Still, digital collaboration tools can’t do it all. There may be some gossip, but not much. Playful ribbing on a video call is usually not funny or hurtful—the flow is too stilted and the technology too prone to glitches. So, we mute ourselves in a way that technology can’t fix.