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Gossip, they say

Is it wrong to say that I’m not totally adverse to the idea of gossip? That I participate in, look for, and even propagate tsismis myself at times?

There are days when I’d reach for the entertainment section of the newspaper before turning my attention to the headlines, and days when I’d forgo a copy of Newsweek to leaf through the latest issue of OK! or Yes! magazine. Drinking sessions with my friends are never complete without the obligatory “Did you hear about so-and-so?”; and usually, the way to fill an awkward silence with a long-lost acquaintance is to inadvertently talk about somebody else.

Gossip is the spice of life, so to speak. It’s also looked down upon as divisive, petty, and chock-full of negative innuendo. Not to mention indescribably inaccurate. He who engages in casual gossip is already tarnishing the very fabric of his being; i.e., show me a person who participates in gossip and I’ll show you someone who can’t be trusted.

But we all participate in gossip, one way or another. Even the people who pass judgment on gossipers are already gossiping as they do so. Even news, to some extent, is dignified gossip.

So if tsismis is so inherently wrong, why does everyone do it?

Good cop, bad cop

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First things first: Not all gossip is bad.

A society will fall apart if, 24/7, its sole purpose is geared towards high-brow, industrious pursuits. Leisure time exists precisely so that we don’t burn ourselves out, and gossip can be considered a part of that leisure time. Sure, it’s idle and generally trivial talk; but that’s why leisure accounts for gossip which accounts for entertainment. This type of gossip, the itch to know why Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber broke up, or how Angelica Panganiban and John Lloyd Cruz became a couple, is largely innocent. At least, if you’re the consumer. Media outfits that actually profit from the personal lives of these figures are a different story altogether.

In any case, the clamor for dirt on our favorite, most controversial celebrities shouldn’t automatically be viewed as malicious in itself. Being talked about, after all, comes with the package of being a public figure. Moreover, the distance between those figures on TV and the rest of the common folk isn’t something that can be bridged by simply tuning in every night — ordinary people bridge the immeasurable gap by projecting their own fantasies and hopes onto their icons. And that kind of gossip isn’t evil at all.

Then there’s the healthy kind of gossip. One that is done with altruism, in the sense that a person gossips in order to help others. It only sounds absurd because we never see gossip as anything other than bad. People aren’t stone benches. Most would readily pass on a piece of information they might find socially useful or pertinent, given the opportunity. Case in point, last year’s false alarm about the nuclear fallout from Japan making its way to the Philippines? That whole text brigade brouhaha led to unwarranted pandemonium, sure; but in the end, it demonstrated that people did care. Even if it was only started by rumor.

And what about witnessing untrustworthy acts and then helpfully spreading the information after? A recent study on the virtues of gossip conducted by the University of California, Berkley, revealed that when people saw a person behave in a deceitful way, they “became frustrated and their heart rate increased. But when they had the opportunity to pass a warning on, that reduced or eliminated their frustration and also tempered their increased heart rate.”

The study goes on to note that even at the risk of suffering personal cost, most people would still be willing to pass on information if there was an injustice involved.

From here, one could say that gossip plays a role in maintaining social order. After all, the specter of gossip looming over one’s head is often enough to deter people from behaving in an untrustworthy way, especially when one’s reputation is at stake.

Not all gossip is bad, but it will always boil down to intent and the conscientiousness involved in spreading a particular piece of information. Gossip driven by the desire to ruin someone else’s life is undoubtedly malicious, but that doesn’t mean all gossip is necessarily evil; if anything, we can take it as a necessary evil. 

Pinoy gossip culture?

Everyone says we have one, and a number of people are of the opinion that gossip is, to name a few: our national pastime, our source of educational recreation, our means of schadenfreude, and our sustenance for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Some even attribute our being branded one of the happiest people in the world to our penchant for gossip. 

But here’s where I disagree (and not because of that recent, deviant case of a model murdering a fellow model over gossip).

Filipinos are probably one of the happier people in the world due to the tropical climate we live in (which keeps our skin supple and young-looking); the largely fatalistic view we have of the world; our still largely agricultural society (which rebuffs the sense of displacement that could have been brought on by a full-scale industrial revolution); and the kinds of religion and cultural history we have as a people.

Gossip? Not so much. We are too quick to essentialize ourselves as gossip-mongers. Gossip is a part of every country in the world, and everyone dabbles in it.

Ultimately, gossip is a human phenomenon, and in various measurements, an intrinsic part of the general human condition — not just ours.



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