Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 208
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Secretarial "Bitching"

Research provides a better understanding of complaining.

When women get together at work for a little chat, they sometimes come away saying they had a "bitch session." That usually comes as no surprise to a casual passerby. The sharp tone of their voices makes it clear that they're "bitching." It can also be a little unnerving, especially if their voices drop as you approach. That could mean they're "bitching" about you.

Bosses have negative opinions about "bitching," and they usually dismiss it as "idle chatter," or "vicious gossip." Here's a definition of "bitching" used by Patty Sotirin from Michigan Technological University: "A form of talk among working women expressing negative feelings and evaluations through pointed, personalized observations about people, events, or conditions."

Professor Sotirin isn't so sure it's a good idea to dismiss "bitching" as managers often do. She conducted a study to look at it more closely. (Incidentally, "bitching" is the term Ms. Sotirin used.)

Sotirin accompanied four secretaries throughout their typical work days and participated in their informal talk. She analyzed dozens of their conversations, and she made several conclusions.

"Bitching" serves several functions in an organization, and it is often unclear which function is being served. This creates a tension in the interpersonal relationships in an organization. Here are some examples:

"Bitching" is a force of accommodation which pressures individuals to adjust their own attitudes and behaviors to meet the demands of the social group. By invoking the fear of social exclusion and of "what people might say," secretaries are able to maintain a proper group identity of conduct and appearance. They also drastically reduce the attractiveness of alternatives that might otherwise entice individuals, such as unorthodox hair styles, or casual living arrangements with the boss.

"Bitching" is also a force of resistance which musters the antagonisms of individuals toward the leaders of the organization - the bosses - who are typically male. "Bitching" is a refusal to comply with managers' desires that secretaries be feminine and dispassionate. It is their rejection of pressure from managers to comply.

"Bitching" can stimulate a network if interactions that temporarily forge alliances and stimulate flights of imagination that create grand schemes of resistance.

During times of transition, "bitching" can be used as an instrument to affect change in ways which may not be best for the organization as a whole.

The secretaries Professor Sotirin observed frequently spoke of the importance of "being nice" when they "bitched," but they used this expression to refer to two different ideas.

"Being nice" required people to mask intense, negative feelings and to constrain themselves so they could consistently project a professional image.

"Being nice" also required people to care for others and to be careful about their feelings. It invoked interpersonal care-taking as a standard for office conduct.

These two meanings, to be professionally nice and to be interpersonally nice, created tension when the correct meaning was unclear.

Finally, "bitching" defined and enforced a traditional image of femininity for secretaries and thereby marginalized deviations from this standard (such as the occasional unlucky male occupying a traditionally female occupation).

Professor Sotirin recognized "bitching" as a fragmented, contradictory, and limited mode of struggle against management authority, but she believes it is significant because of the tension it creates. She urges a greater appreciation of its effects.

Now you are aware.

Reference: Sotirin, Patty and Heidi Gottfried (1997) The Ambivalent Dynamics of Secretarial "Bitching": Control, Resistance, and Identity. Academy of Management Best Paper Proceedings from the Fifty-Seventh Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management, 448-452.

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