The sickness and death, the job losses, school closures, unimaginable pressure on health care workers, mass isolation and collective anxiety -- these are the serious things we are struggling with and will be recovering from for years.
Then there are the smaller, everyday privations: canceled vacations, closed summer camps, fanless sports events, no more concerts, fewer movies, 10 extra pounds and pants that haven't seen the light of day in nearly a year.
It's quite a spectrum, to be sure. And on the lower end of it there is another thing I've missed so much -- a small one that, like all things we are suddenly denied, seems bigger in its absence: more than movie theaters, airplanes, barbecues and the gym (which isn't even in the top 20).
I miss office gossip.
Like most everyone else, by the end of March I'd stopped going into my office in New York City. We began a long spring and summer and now fall of work-from-home and everything that entails.
At first, there was a lot I didn't miss. I didn't miss the hour-and-a-half commute to the office from my suburban town. I didn't miss the time away from my family. I didn't miss the city's daily assault on my senses. And I especially didn't miss the subzero air conditioning that every office I've ever worked in believes is universally "comfortable."
But I started to miss interactions with my coworkers. I still talked to many of them on a daily basis, even saw them virtually. So it wasn't necessarily that I missed them, or didn't know what was going on in their lives. It was a special kind of interaction I found myself longing for.
It was the five minute conversation about the latest news scandal with a coworker on an elevator. It was accidentally running into a colleague in the hallway and moving into a nearby empty conference room to speak in hushed tones about a secret new project; or now and then shooting the proverbial **** with colleagues -- about kids, recipes, doctor's appointments and celebrities. In other words, life.
I never realized how much those unplanned, stolen moments in between the business of work had meant to me until they were gone.
Unlike curbside pickup, virtual classrooms, drive-by birthday parades and Halloween candy chutes, there's been no innovation for duplicating office gossip during Covid-19. That's, in part, because the most alluring aspect of it is its spontaneity -- no one plans to meet at the water cooler. It just happens. Therein lies the thrill.
Office gossip, that glorious exchange of nothing and everything, can't be replicated in a zoom meeting, can't be manufactured over the phone or even in a group text, isn't the same on a chat app. There's no place -- physical or virtual -- in which the social phenomenon of gossip can be synthetically reconstructed, at least not one that exists yet.
That's a good thing, you might say. Gossiping is a bad habit, we're told.
Not necessarily, says science. Gossip may take on a negative connotation -- of secrets and lies spread about enemies and frenemies, from "Peyton Place" to "Melrose Place." But more often than not, gossip is neutral (even positive). In other words, just ...talking.
According to researchers, gossip was an early survival mechanism. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar suggests
that the bonding among early primates by way of grooming has evolved into today's "chit-chat." "Were we not able to engage in discussions [like these], we would not be able to sustain the kinds of societies that we do," he wrote.
In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, gossip was shown to
have a strong "prosocial" affect -- that can "effectively deter selfishness and promote cooperation" -- and lower a group's heart rates, having a calming effect on subjects.
Gossiping creates an intimacy that human beings crave, researchers say. Likewise, it demands an intimacy, close quarters, a nearness that Covid-19 has robbed us of. Even for those essential workers still physically soldiering into offices, hospitals, grocery stores and factories, it's hard to experience that intimacy through masks, while six feet apart. You may use the metaphorical water cooler, and show up in person at your workplace, but you're eager to leave it after you do.
Gossiping also helps us define trust in groups, "who can and can't be trusted, who breaks group rules, who is friends with who, what other people's personalities and viewpoints are," says
Duke University psychology professor Mark Leary, PhD.
In these ways, gossip is just another form of socialization -- one we desperately need and are longing for in these alienated and isolated months.
There's so much we've missed during the lost year of Covid-19, and though they may feel small, even these little things matter to us as social human beings.
I hardly ever thought about the office encounters between friends and colleagues -- which never had to be torrid or scandalous to be delicious -- as something I depended on or relished as much as I did until they stopped. Now, it's one of the small things I'm so looking forward to returning to when we finally get to go back to our offices.
But...when we do, can you turn the heat up?