Harmony Moura Burk
Every Sunday, three old women gather in the kitchen, chattering about the latest church scandal. They’ve turned it into a ritual over the years, laying out secrets like they layout tea sets and cakes. Their mothers did the same thing, and their grandmothers, and their great grandmothers. The table is set, the shawls are gathered around their shoulders, and their old faces shine with mirth with every piece of information. For them, it’s as intricate a ritual as Holy Mass.
Humans are incapable of minding their own business. Gossip, fofoca, chisme, tea—it doesn’t matter what you call it, we revel in our ability to trade secrets all the same. In fact, we seek it out constantly. It’s appealing to spill someone else’s beans. Our desire for gossip is ancient, dating to the Bible, the Ancient Greeks, and beyond. Despite social stigma (the Pope himself recently begged hairdressers to stop spilling tea), we still pursue conversations founded upon talking about someone else. It’s fun, even if some people would rather not admit it. More importantly, however, it is key to the stories we use to relate to each other and to ourselves.
“¡Gorgeous! ¡Linda! Tell me something I don’t know.”— No me Diga, Lin Manuel-Miranda
Just as oral traditions and folklore stories are an integral part of cultural experiences, gossip is more than just a social bonding activity. Because of gossip’s ties to community, relationships, and the passage of news through unconventional mediums, it generates a unique sense of unity by allowing participants to interact with stories that arise from within their communities. I grew up listening to my Brazilian aunts eagerly sharing the information they’d acquired about the family (and that outside of it) as a way of bonding. Every phone call, visit or party was incomplete without updates or inquiring about others. Fofoca, the Portuguese word for gossip, flowed freely. Trips to the local hair salon meant listening to news about the regulars and others around the city, and my mom often encountered people in the street asking about her family ties who had heard of her through one story or another. The cultural role of fofoca, or chisme as it is called in Spanish, in Latiné communities cannot be understated. Communities, especially isolated, tight-knit groups, join together under this unique form of storytelling. Families use it to reinforce relationships and propagate individual histories. In a world of renowned authors, directors, and ancient generational stories, gossip destroys the idea that you need some great artistic talent to tell stories. Anyone can construct a narrative, embellish it here and there to set the scene and move the audience with their words and make everyday events and drama as attention-grabbing as a play by Shakespeare or Ibsen. The fact that truth isn’t always a prerequisite—rather, the tale just has to be entertaining and believable enough—draws similarities to genres like magical realism, historical fiction, and contemporary literature such as the works of Sally Rooney and Ottessa Moshfegh. It doesn’t matter whether or not these things actually happened, just that they might have happened, or sort of happened.
Two essential components make it such that gossip, unlike any other form of storytelling, is a communal work. First, gossip without an audience is just writing or conspiracy. Another listener, if no one else, must be present—otherwise, who are you gossiping to? The fun of gossip lies in sharing. Second, there is rarely just one author to the story; each individual listener is often encouraged to add on or at least to provide reactions. Thus, particularly in Hispanic and Latiné communities, the art of fofoca demands a sense of fun and casual connection, inviting other “authors” to take part and revel in the tales they can spin. The spaces in which gossip promulgates, predominantly occupied or at least spread by women, become cultural hubs. Individual expression gives rise to creative outlets which spread local news through the grapevine, allowing for unconventional means of sharing information. This can increase communal unity as well as strengthen bonds between individual members. A place where local stories which may have otherwise never been known are thus freely circulated and appreciated in their purest form.
Students slip into a bathroom stall to smoke and gossip, secrets, and throw names into the air as freely as the smell of cigarettes. Who’s dating, who got dumped, who was caught drinking at last night’s party, who tried to vandalize someone else’s property—everyone’s business and no one’s. They know all the answers and all the questions. Nothing is sacred, no topic off-limits. Gossip is just another part of their daily routine, sandwiched right between calc and study sessions. None of them care, all of them hang on every word. The thrill of airing out someone else’s dirty laundry is as addicting as the nicotine.
“Did you hear that Catherine caught the plague again?”— A medieval woman, probably
Like other stories, gossip typically follows a plot structure, albeit unconventionally. You have your beginning (usually along the lines of “I heard…” or “did you know…”); your rising action (“and then she told me—”); your climax (“No! You’re kidding, right?”); your falling action (“and then I said—”) and your resolution (“well I heard—”). You have your colorful cast of characters, your drama, your plot twists—the only difference is that instead of a page or a screen, the medium of gossip is intimacy. Intimacy between friends, between family, between strangers in a hair salon—gossip strengthens human bonds and intrapersonal communities because it brings people close. No one’s family is more united than when they’re collectively airing that one uncle’s dirty laundry over Thanksgiving dinner. Gossip has been around for ages, prevalent even among Medieval peasants. For them, it strengthened village connections and spread news while also serving as a unique way to circumvent authorized (and often censored) forms of communication. There is a certain danger to gossip, much like that present in satire and forms of literature that act as political allegory and commentary, but unlike written mediums, the stories told through gossip are not bound to a pen and paper. Thus, they flow far more freely—anyone can engage with it and anyone can spread it as long as there are people to speak and interest in the business of others.
Furthermore, the act of gossiping demands a level of creativity—it isn’t enough to just tell people that Carla from down the street has a secret husband or that a mutual friend drunk called her ex for the 14th time, you need to build tension. Half the fun is found in generating suspense, some of the best stories are those which turn an ordinary event into something worthy of Austen or Woolf. No one wants to hear about how someone spilled detergent in the laundromat, but turn it into a story of mortification, struggle, and chaos and you’ll have an audience. That is the appeal of gossip—the transformation of the ordinary into the remarkable.
Your aunt pulls you to the side during a party, enthusiastically informing you about the trouble her sisters have gotten into. She told you this story before, but now she has additional information from your uncle, your brother, your mom. You happily give her more pieces to the puzzle, she reacts as if you’re sharing the winning numbers to the lottery. The music blaring in the background is just loud enough that no one else can hear her. There isn’t malice in her tone, she just wants to know, hungering for more and more people to share her experiences with her.
“If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”― Alice Roosevelt Longworth
Because gossip involves characters known to the listeners, it constantly evolves. Each time the story is retold to a different set of listeners (regardless of whether or not the original audience is present) the altered set of reactions transforms the experience. It becomes personal, particularly when gossip encourages further storytelling. In this way, it’s unique. Unlike other mediums, which tell their stories in a self-contained fashion, gossip directly encourages more gossip. It’s a more direct version of the pipeline that spawns fanfic and other books from great works of literature—gossip flows freely and feeds a human urge to hear and tell more. One train of thought follows another, developing a complex system of mental railways composed of individual and group experiences. Part of this is a human tendency towards competition. The one with the most sensational account, the juiciest piece of information, tends to receive recognition. Other aspects suggest another reason why gossip almost always leads to more gossip: connection. Entertainment, a desire to be understood and to vent your experiences and frustrations, interest in hearing what someone may or may not have to say…all of these enforce the appeal of inviting someone to sit next to you and divulge their own arsenal of secret information. Even when gossip and its subject matters are recognized as potentially immoral or harmful, there is still a desire to indulge in it, violating the sanctity of privacy for the sake of intimacy and connection with another person. Often, the blurred line between gossip and slander is treated no differently than a problematic piece of literature or an intentionally disruptive play. Stories do not always have to be pleasant, they simply have to tell and engage. To the gossiper, even negative feedback is welcomed—you still get to tell your story and perhaps even discover its legitimacy or additional, related information in the process.
As soon as you step out of the room you reach for your phone, rapidly typing in every group chat you’re in. It’s the same message, a frenzied series of texts relating every detail of the horrible things your boss said to another employee while you left work. It doesn’t matter if you misheard a few details, it was important and interesting and confusing enough. The flood of notifications that follow only serves to boost your satisfaction, the social media posts that follow spreading the word. Your coworkers follow suit, the story morphing and restructuring itself relentlessly each time it’s retold—your boss resigns within a week.
“I never gossip. I observe. And then relay my observations to practically everyone.”― Gail Carriger, Timeless
Despite what critics of the habit may say, gossip is uniquely equipped for addressing social issues and expression. As a free-flowing medium, it is one of the hardest forms of storytelling to silence. Almost anything slips through the cracks and maybe heard through the grapevine, even when those involved don’t want it to. There’s a reason why the rumor mill is so infamous in popular culture and why matters of reputation have concerned humanity for ages. Once the fire starts, it doesn’t stop. Nor would anyone perpetuating it want to stop. Gossip allows people a unique form of self-expression in which they can freely demonstrate their thoughts and opinions of others in narrative form. More so than other forms of storytelling, gossip is informed by the speaker’s perspective. It is, thus, often told by an unreliable narrator (you could imagine the whole plot of The Great Gatsby as being one giant attempt at gossip by Nick Carraway without changing a single aspect of the book), especially if this is the third or fourth retelling. This unreliability is tinged with the speaker’s emotions and desires, changing shape according to how much information they chose to add as well as their own personal narrative style. Gossip hints at the nature of one’s perception even when it isn’t stated outright. Narrative voice, distribution of plot elements, characterization, and tone all change from gossiper to gossiper for the same reasons they change between writers. The only difference is that instead of written words, gossip is spoken. Listening to gossip informs individuals of the speaker’s connections to the social circles around them and may influence one’s own narrative style; telling gossip allows the speaker to develop their own storytelling voice. That is why people willingly go out of their way to listen.
“Enter RUMOUR, painted full of tongues.”William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2
We are hardwired into a fascination with intimate drama—those dirty little secrets and haunting memories that structure the lives and actions of everyday people. We thrive off our desire to discover intricate webs of secrecy and watch them play out. To see and be seen. That’s why we sit and listen to the same story told over and over again just to see a new person’s reaction. That’s why we become invested in family scandals and high school dramas. The old women chattering in the kitchen, the students throwing around secrets, the aunt oversharing every detail…these are building blocks for the stories we share and thrive on. While novels, plays, and poetry may be the full-course meals of stories and intricate plots, gossip forms the bread and butter of storytelling. The narratives we engage with and build every day. The group chat, the tea parlor, the stall, the bedroom, and the private Twitter feed… are no less important places of authorial creation than the writing room and the typewriter. Through them, and stories of the quotidian, we appreciate narratives embedded in the normal parts of our lives. The stories of our families, our friends, our acquaintances, our coworkers, the strangers on the street, and the odd fellow you met at 7 am in H.E.B. by complete chance—these stories don’t need to be published or immortalized in print to be shared and cherished. All they need is a desire to be told, and a listening ear.