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Monkey business in the staffroom

Do you often feel stressed rushing to collect your worksheets only to find that a chance rendezvous by the photocopier leaves you calmed and ready for the next fray? I'm not alluding to a brief encounter of the knee trembling variety but one of a more certain frisson - the gossiping exchange.

Psychologist Kathryn Waddington from City University in London highlights the dangers and usefulness of gossip in the workplace. Her studies show that gossip can be a devastating form of harassment which may sustain a bullying regime. However, gossip can also help to maintain social relationships and be an outlet for cathartic anger and frustration.

We love a robust snippet of salacious news to perk up the week. Dissecting the business of others is pure pleasure. Whoopee! So-and-so imbibed several margaritas too many at the Mexican theme evening and did you hear about the unfortunate physics teacher found in an abandoned supermarket trolley somewhere between Elgin and Lossiemouth?

Gossip is hard to resist, and teachers, far from rising above it, love it.

Reading about celebrities in lightweight magazines may be beneath their professional whatever but, blimey, they can give Joe Bloggs pelters when they get stuck into him. Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley will be safe enough but let one of their own number step out of line and, wow, watch your back. The knife will be plunged in.

But, most juicy of all, is hearing a peach of a gossip from a school other than your own. I remember being told about a headteacher who was caught in his office with the deputy - and no, they weren't counting the dinner money. Now that I've started, I can't stop. Let me share this recent tale.A secondary assistant headteacher was arranging the transfer of primary 7 pupils. Allegedly, he instructed the primary school to identify which of the entrants was cursed with obstructive parents. I was tickled in an intrigued but sad kind of way and, hey, it should make you wonder if someone somewhere has a file on you labelled "obstructive parent".

But what always surprises me is how paranoid some teachers are. Last summer, standing in the queue in my local supermarket, a certain character asked me, quite vigorously actually, if it was him I'd been gossiping about in my columns regarding a certain style of management. Over the packing of the strawberries - incidentally, quite close in colour to the complexion of the complainer - I reluctantly responded to the accusation. No, I was not referring to you. You read it. You saw yourself in my portrait. You are annoyed. If the gloves appear to be fitting wear them or sort yourself out.

Robin Dunbar, a Liverpool University professor, says that we are powerfully drawn to gossiping because it's in our genes. For as much as 20 per cent of their day our monkey kin sat around combing each other's coats as a means of maintaining alliances and keeping an eye on events. Hence the term nit-picking.

Picture the scene in the staffroom. On second thoughts, don't! Thank goodness, when humans evolved from monkeys such grooming wasn't really an option, so we turned to gossiping. With all its downsides it keeps a perspective for us on social matters and helps us suss out a place within our groupings. So keep talking. Possibly it's every bit as vital as knowing where to find the biggest bunch of bananas in the jungle.

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