As originally answered on Quora.com …
Thanks for an interesting question.
According to BusinessDictionary.com informal communication is a casual form of information sharing typically used in personal conversations with friends or family members. Within a business environment, informal communication is sometimes called the grapevine and might be observed occurring in conversations, electronic mails, text messages and phone calls between socializing employees.
The song ‘I heard it through the grapevine’ comes readily to mind. To expand upon the above definition, the conversation that goes on behind the scenes is an example of the grapevine in operation.
I work in a clinical facility and we have shift report at the beginning and at the end of each shift. I find that what’s going on behind the scenes i.e. about my fellow staff and our organization, every bit as important as our clinical report. Work environments can be very political and it can be helpful to be ‘in the know.”
As for informal communication’s functions, since it is informal i.e. not organized or controlled, possibly it doesn’t have a function. It does serve a purpose though. Maybe it would be better to think of it terms of what it can provide, both positive and negative.
On the positive side, it can provide an opportunity for employees to stay connected, ‘in the loop’ as the saying goes. Managers likely use it to disseminate information that they don’t want to share ‘officially.’ An example would be where a manager shares a confidence with one or more key employees, knowing fully well that they will in turn share the info with others. In strict confidence of course!
I’ve personally used the grapevine to disseminate info that I want shared but I don’t want to come out looking like I’m bragging. I’ve learned who I can share secrets with that I want broadcasted.
On the negative side, using the grapevine is only steps away from gossiping. Gossiping can be empowering for those people who like to have power and control over others. Information is a form of power. If they know something you don’t and get to share it with you, it raises their personal power and standing. At least in their minds.
Gossiping can be very hurtful. It is often based on half-truths and outright lies, designed to make the gossiper appear to be more powerful. Gossiping is a difficult thing to control. Almost everyone of us does it, yet none of us likely want to be the subject of gossip. It is easy to recognize gossiping behavour in others, but not so in ourselves.
A rule of thumb is that if you are talking about another individual and you or your partner are saying things that you would never say in front of the person you are talking about, then you are gossiping.
Now did you hear what’s happening to …?
Thanks again for your question!
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