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Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s headline

If you tell a colleague about a mutual associate undergoing financial woes, you may simply be trying to understand why your troubled friend is not at his best. In one view, people might misconstrue such an act as gossiping and that you hope the information you shared with your buddy will spread, but in another view some might look at it as a show of concern for a comrade who is in dire straits, and you are doing it knowing that the classified information remains secure with you and your receivers.

Gossip is a pursuit that almost everyone partakes in, and the struggle to describe it crops up due to the countless motives for why people get involved in it. Notice, for example, that when you enter a room for a meeting or bump into somebody on the street, you get asked the cursory question, “Ano ang balita?” (What’s the news?). The query is actually asking for any gossip you can share, and gossip, after all, is essentially news or vice versa.  In gossiping, there is an aspiration, deliberate or not, to damage someone else’s character by spreading stories of ethical breaches, monetary fixes or sexual liaisons. But there is also the simple desire to better understand another person. You may also gossip to make yourself feel better, or superior, silently asking, “Why raise myself up actively when I can tear someone down?” People engage in this type of gossip daily, even if the authentic stimuli for such actions are sometimes deliberate.

Gossip and rumors are interchangeable, in essence, but with the latter being less precise, more wide-ranging, more scattered, less personal in content and in the way in which they are distributed. Rumors can graduate to gossip, and gossip can bolster rumors. Gossip, many agree, is specific, and is communicated to carefully selected listeners. It is a form of purposeful sharing about other people.

Gossip can develop into a sensationalized crisis — the perceptual and the bizarre kind. The bizarre kind is disruption caused by largely fictional but intriguing or titillating stories like the one about a local water company — how a man fell and drowned in a ventilation chamber of the city’s water system. While it is factual, the scary stories it triggered made it peculiar. And then, of course, there were the snake tales about a mall fitting room and a how a leading fast-food chain supposedly used earthworms in its patties. The perceptual kind is disturbance caused by news media’s overestimation or exaggerated reporting of an insignificant problem like the stories of alleged product defects or spoilage that are wrongly reported to have caused illness or injury.

In Joseph Epstein’s book Gossip The Untrivial Pursuit, gossip is “one party telling another what a third party doesn’t want known.” Today, it has become ubiquitous in public life, and as such, can no longer be considered inconsequential. It has become so persistent and ever-present. To elucidate, he borrows an old New York Post columnist’s definition, which says that gossip is “hearing something you like about someone you don’t.” Epstein has a two-pronged view about gossip.  While he abhors the scar gossip inflicts on people’s cultures, he persuasively argues that it can dish up any number of meaningful intentions, from the literary to the sociological. He relishes good gossip himself, and believes that it is a critical aspect in regulating behavior and defining membership in a group. Here are a number of key takeaways on gossip and gossiping from the book, and for sure you can relate to them well:

• If you’re famous, you’re fair game. That’s the cardinal rule in gossip. As the rumors build up, the effect, even when the details are surprisingly personal, is strangely trivial and unwelcoming, as if the central characters weren’t your fellow travelers but protagonists in the story of your times.

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• Gossip can be insignificant or frivolous or worse. Gossiping was once a more refined custom. Today, it has degenerated into a tabloid-infested culture of Internet slurs and an obsessive focus on the personal lives of public figures. It can be false, too, using the example of high school boys exaggerating or inventing their sexual exploits.

• Gossip is often about sex and sexuality. It may be less today than it once was, considering that people are now more tolerant about all sorts of sexual conduct. Today, if you’re told that so-and-so actor is gay, it might not give you the shock or the extremely high level of interest compared to 20 to 50 years ago. Perhaps it would be an awfully shocking piece of news to hear, then, when sexual gossip is really of grave concern, and when the element of hypocrisy is prevalent.

• Gossip is social intimacy. When one comes to another person with a delightful bit of gossipy news, it is a way of conferring a gift on that person. And it ought to be accepted as a gift, particularly if the motives are pure. It is an intimate act, and you do it because there’s a prevailing kind of friendship before you share a delightful piece of gossip.

• In many religions, gossip is a sin. Among the Jewish people, it’s called evil speech. It hurts three people: the one who tells it, the one who listens, and the one being spoken of. And it has evil consequences. But the thing about it is the paradox that even though you know it can do awful things, it also yields a kind of enjoyment. As Epstein writes, “I cannot condemn gossip, at any rate not with a good conscience, if only because I enjoy it too much, even while I understand that too much of it lowers the tone.”

• Gossip is not an exclusive activity among women. And to say that it’s a “woman’s world” is a false supposition. In fact, the one realm of equality that you can be assured of is that men, as well as women, are quite interested in gossip.

• Gossip is character analysis. Taking unwelcome personal attention and focusing it elsewhere has an appeal that even Benjamin Franklin, who, despite other callings was one of America’s first gossip columnists, recognized two centuries ago: “Most people delight in censure when they are not the objects of it,” Franklin notes, adding, “If they are offended by my publicity exposing their private vices, I promise they shall have the satisfaction, in a very little time, of their friends and neighbors in the same circumstances.”

• Gossip is a form of news. And sometimes it is crucial news. If you’re working for a large corporation, for example, it would be very helpful to know that your CEO has a health problem or any issue that may impact on the company’s reputation. In the academe, it is advisable to be constantly familiar with the changes that are being made in the university to better serve the communication needs of the institution. In some small, corporate bodies, gossip is the only form of news that is available, and to its receivers, it can be of the greatest significance. Even investigative journalism qualifies, the author says, citing Wilde’s description of the profession as “organized gossip.”

• Gossip sells. This claim is supported by the vast gossip industry with magazines, Internet sites, television shows and newspapers devoted to little else. Media factories stamp out endless cookie-cutter celebrities in order to gossip about them. As a result, it has been said that there are so many famous people now you haven’t heard of.

• Gossip works best in a small and tight community. That’s the traditional view, but now, you live in an even smaller town — the Internet, which is extensively accessible and is acknowledged to possess the supremacy to libel and ruin lives and reputations. It is the nesting place of online gossip. It’s not just another platform for gossip, though. In Professor Daniel J. Solove’s words, it is gossip “on steroids,” which assumes a greater power to capture, possess and flow. Scandalous rumors can fasten themselves to web-based gossips as they circulate. The “ruination of reputation” and the disregard of privacy are the two most destructive aspects of gossip, and the Web specializes in both. Tracing information back to an original source becomes even more difficult, and once a piece of gossip is in the public arena, deleting it becomes nearly impossible. The medium becomes the message.

• Gossip is part of history. It has moved from the “Great Gossips of the Western World” to the gossip of literary circles and gay subcultures to today’s fallen modern world. In the old days of kings and courtiers, Epstein notes, “gossip was a nasty but rare treat — a rich dessert that’s devolved, in the age of the Internet, into an all-junk-food diet.”

• Gossip is a mixture of so many things. It eludes a fixed or exact definition — verbal abuse, clandestine acts, breakdowns, disgraceful occurrences, duplicities, exposés, depressed affectations, strategic information about bosses, celebrities, religious leaders, politicians or high government officials, forecasts, vilifications, awkward realities, or dangerous relationships whose only worth is that they appeal to the voyeur in us.

People live and breathe gossip. In the words of New York newspaper columnist and radio gossip commentator Walter Winchell, “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s headline.” And undoubtedly, that gossip masquerading as news or vice versa often hurts others. And “When it does, it’s like bursting a pillow on a hilltop. Once the feathers have scattered, it’s impossible to put them back, and the damage is done,” Epstein emphasizes.

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E-mail bongosorio@yahoo.com or bong_osorio@abs-cbn.com for comments, questions or suggestions. Thank you for communicating.

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