Although talking behind a co-worker’s back is standard fare in most organizations, most of us, if asked about it, would probably say that such behavior is unproductive. But thanks to WikiLeaks’ outing of US diplomatic cables and the December 13 issue of the New Yorker, “Special Oops Frenemies,” by Lizzie Widdicombe, we may now view this behavior in a different way.
Diplomats as do most of us, says the author, play multiple roles in their lives. These roles, as do ours, require ”an extra slathering of false civilities that grease the wheels of all human dealings.” Things can go a little off when we do this; however, “one always runs the risk that wires will get crossed and hypocrisies will be exposed.”
This is what happened when private U.S. State Department cables were released with candid descriptions of people with whom the U.S. does business. For example, Nicolas Sarcozy of France is described as “thin skinned, “ while North Korea’s Kim Jong Il is referred to as a “flabby old chap.”
This kind of talk and exposure doesn’t happen only in diplomacy.
I’m sure it has happened to many of us a time or two: in comments made at an office holiday party when we’ve had a few too many, at a family function where, after thinking it for years, you blurt out that your brother-in-law is a pompous ass, or in an email to a confident about the CEO’s idiotic behavior where you mistakenly hit “reply all.”
Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt said the leaks reminded him of the opening scene in “King Lear” where Lear’s daughters are trying to flatter their father to get the bigger dowry. But out of earshot, the sisters show their true mind.
Goneril: You see how full of changes his age is…
Regan: Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.
Greenblatt notes the coolness of the words, but says it’s something we all do: we say one version to people’s faces and a slightly cooler version when they are not in the room. He notes that this doesn’t make us liars. “What you say directly to your friend is very different from what you say behind your friend’s back, but that’s not the whole truth of the matter. Sometimes the whole truth of the matter includes the warm loving relations, too.”
So is there some value to this duplicity in our lives if not only in diplomacy? Anthropologist John Haviland says, “getting the dirt on someone can be helpful for a leader making a personnel decision. There is a serious processing of information there.” A world where this didn’t occur would be “kind of sad,” he says, and concludes by saying that in relationships people are always deciding what they will or won’t reveal. “You’re always doing that calculus. There’s emotional satisfaction in being able to filter and vent.”
So next time in the dentist’s office when you’re having a guilty pleasure reading People Magazine, or when your colleague continually refers to your firm’s CEO as “Mary bitch,” it’s all part of that calculus of what you, and others, are or are not revealing. And although I think that more often than not this behavior helps the workplace less, knowing that it has its place at times might lend you to cut others some slack…and even enjoy it.