Pápay, B., Takács K. Relational Elements of the Gossip Triad

Pápay, B., Takács K.: Relational Elements of the Gossip Triad

Ever since Simmel, the triad constitutes the smallest unit of interest for the analysis of social structure. This study focuses on a peculiar triad: on gossip. A gossip triad describes the flow of evaluative information from a sender to a receiver about a target person. Rival theories explain the high frequency of gossip interactions in human communication emphasizing its different functions for the group. The social bonding hypothesis stresses that gossip replaces grooming between the sender and the receiver and the target’s role in this is less important. This hypothesis suggests that the sender and the receiver maintain a good relationship in the gossip triad. In an alternative theoretical view, gossip has the function to enforce social norms; it is relational aggression against norm violators and hence aims at demolishing the target’s reputation. This implies that the sender has a negative tie to the target and this negative relationship is more likely to occur also between the receiver and the target, partly due to malicious gossip that has already taken place.

This study takes a descriptive account of sender-reported gossip triads in 9 workplaces with a total of 225 employees and attempts to decide which theoretical views are supported with empirical data. Our self-collected data contains receiver reports on 696 positive, 460 negative, and 679 neutral gossip triads (1835 triads in total). The occurrence of these triads has been compared to all possible within-workplace triads obtained by permutation. For explanatory variables, we collected rich and multiplex information on each dyad using 34 different network items. We used dimension reduction techniques to describe each dyadic relationship as ‘Positive’, ‘Negative’ or ‘Uninterested’. Considering the six possible dyads (S->R, R->S, S->T, T->S, R->T, T->R) between the three actors and their signed relations (‘Positive’, ‘Negative’ and ‘Uninterested’), we examined which configurations of relationships lead most likely to the formation of positive, negative, and neutral gossip triads, or to the formation of gossip triads in general.

Results show that a positive gossip triad is likely to form when the three actors have positive relationship among them. A negative gossip triad is likely formed when the three actors have coexisting positive and negative (or conflicting) ties among them. In this case, gossip might support the enforcement of social norms or can be the strategic tool of competition at the workplace. Surprisingly, negative gossip might also occur when the three actors have only negative relations among them, contradicting expectations based on structural balance theory. The function of gossip in this case could be the reduction of anxiety in a stressful situation.