Hazte tu fama y acuéstate a dormir, goes the saying in Colombia, where el chisme, a noun, quickly hatched a verb, chismosear (in Cuba, chismear). In conservative but sociable cultures, like Latin ones, chismosear is practically a national pastime. The word’s “light” meaning is synonymous with browsing or snooping, such as voy a chismosear a ver que hay en la tienda/armario (I want to browse around the store/snoop around the dresser). But hardcore chisme, as in speaking about someone behind their back, whether the things said are true or not, can be something quite damaging. Strangely enough, though, the admonition in the message is closer to “don’t create a reputation for yourself, for then you may as well just go to sleep,” than the more direct “don’t gossip about people — it can ruin their reputation.”
Despite the roundabout manner, the old saying reveals a universal suspicion that there is both something naturally-occurring and something unethical about discussing others’ business behind their back. Jewish law has a prohibition on idle talk about others, which is labeled lashon hara, the sin of being a “talebearer”, mentioned repeatedly in the Book of Proverbs. The New Testament reinforces that gossip is considered an affront to one’s brethren and cautioning against it in the book of James, Corinthians, and Ephesians. Islam, too, devotes attention to the proper values for a Muslim person, and these expressly exclude conjecture, suspicion, backstabbing, prying, and informing.
Across the main monotheistic religions, the recommendations dissuade from the act of speaking about others, without discriminating between true and false information. When it comes to our earthly laws, there is no recourse against “small” gossip: a personal broken confidence or the spreading of information that proves to be true. However, the legal code does address the spreading of untrue rumors. When untrue gossip damages a person’s reputation, resulting in a drain on their livelihood and peace of mind, the chismosa can be sued for slander and end up liable for court fees and whatever damages the judge awards.
In addition to what ancient texts and United States law prescribe, there are plenty of reasons to feel uncomfortable about discussing the private details of someone else’s life with others who might not have been made privy to them. It is a betrayal of friendship, it can be unkind or mean-spirited, and it can alter relationships between family and friends in negative and unfixable ways. And this is just how gossip affects us on a personal level.
Large-Scale Gossip Leads to Misinformation
At a macro level, and even in a stable democracy like the United States, large-scale gossip leads to misinformation, which today moves the masses, often through social media, and can impact widely meaningful processes like policy-making and elections. If that were not enough to weigh the power of gossip, other places and moments in time have given el chisme such power that a well-placed one could cost someone their freedom or their life.
In the communist states that languished under the Soviet fist during the 20th century, for example, the verb “to inform” lost its neutral meaning of passing along facts. Instead, people might “inform on” acquaintances in the hopes of deflecting attention from themselves or garnering special treatment from the authorities. Similarly, spreading gossip to the government about the identities or activities of enemies of the state often led to many being “disappeared” by the military juntas in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. A weapon of tyrannies and dictatorships then and now, propaganda is the most perverse use of gossip, the incessant repetition of untruths until the people have no choice but to believe them.
This level of mass manipulation, though, is the most absurd conclusion of the urge to gossip, proof that malice can take what appears to be a universal and perhaps more benign human impulse too far. The essential kernel of gossip, whether the casual or the capital kind, is the absence of the subject of the conversation. Gossip, in all its forms, relies on speculation by a narrator who has no agency in the matter being discussed, and the transmission of that narrative without permission from the agent.
Thanks to all of these examples, including the extreme ones, from scripture, to police informants and slander, to playground antics, most of us are wired to think of gossip as a negative behavior, even when we engage in it ourselves. We might even believe we don’t engage in the behavior and silently judge those who do. As a society, we collectively and unconsciously associate a person’s willingness to chismear with their overall intelligence or social class. This is evident in the popular idiom, often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, that says “great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
The general idea behind Mrs. Roosevelt’s thought is believed to have originated in 1901, when British scholar Henry Thomas Buckle attributed the propensity to speak about others to the lowest social class. By these measures, gossip is a fault and not a virtue, and it’s endemic to the least privileged members of society, both in social standing and education. In patriarchal cultures, like our Latin one, chismear is often gendered, too, made an attribute exclusive to or especially irritating in women.
In spite of the negativity associated with gossip, it also seems to be a natural and maybe unavoidable development in people. As per The Atlantic, a study published in a British psychology journal in 2016 noted that preschoolers develop the ability to mold one another’s reputation through gossip by the age of five. Occurring as early in life as the first few years of socialization and as old in time as the nearly 6000-year old Talmud, gossip, however noxious or innocent, is unavoidable. This prevalence of gossip as a human behavior has inspired a series of studies over the last decade and a half, designed to get at the heart of the question: can gossip ever be good?
As NPR reports, a recent study conducted by assistant professor and psychologist, Megan Robbins, and her colleagues at UC Riverside, concluded that a whole bunch of conventional wisdom on gossip might be wrong. Participants in the study agreed to have their conversations recorded over the course of a few days. Their verbal exchanges were then analyzed by a team of researchers, who concluded that most of us gossip, and not just a little bit. A majority of the participants spent, on average, 52 minutes of their day speaking about someone who was not physically present or part of the conversation. Given that the average workday is eight hours long, el chisme accounts for around an eighth of our time spent actively adulting. This is another indication that if we choose to invest that kind of time into the activity, it must serve a purpose.
Understanding Gossip on an Evolutionary Level
Indeed, from an anthropological and evolutionary perspective, Robin Dunbar’s 1998 book argues that gossip was a necessary step in the prehistoric evolution of humankind. As the first hominids began to assemble themselves into clans, mutual grooming of the “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” kind, and defense of one another was enough to emotionally bond members. As clans grew larger into tribes, having each other’s backs alone was insufficient. This was the moment when language began to develop as a means of exchange and connection between individuals. Gossip in Dunbar’s view is a normal result of the progressive complication in humankind’s social structure and linguistic development.
While Dunbar explains a primal use for gossip, Robbins and her team question the knee-jerk negative connotation we assign to gossip. We have long philosophized about the morality of el chisme, but perhaps had not considered the valence of the message. Interestingly, the team found that 75% of the information that one person provided another person about a third person absent from the conversation was neutral, a factual documentation of events rather than a judgement on them. The team ventured that about 15% of the exchanges were tinged with malice, while other studies put the amount of negative gossip closer to 5%, and all agree that most of the information that is exchanged is rather mundane, instead of the scandalous nature we anticipate from a juicy chisme.
Good or bad intentioned, social scientists have attributed use-value to gossip. Dr. Elena Martinescu, who conducts her research at King’s college, touts the socializing effects of gossip. In the workplace, Martinescu reports, being spoken about can serve as a type of feedback loop to which people are interestingly responsive. She has discovered that gossiping is another way of connecting to the active workers, weeding out the lazy or selfish personalities. In turn, the people who coast on the effort of another are found out and encouraged, or perhaps shamed into correcting their course.
Martinescu’s findings are echoed by other studies: one, which links the degree of discomfort the subject of el chisme feels to the effort she will expend in making a change; another, which traces the emergence of prosocial behaviors in people criticized behind their back for antisocial ones. Studies out of the Universities of Texas and Oklahoma even give a little boost to negative gossip, noting that when two people bond over disliking a third, the effect is greater than when they both like that person.
I will fully disclose my joy when I read that Dr. Robbins’s team found no difference between men and women when it comes to gossiping. This completely lines up with my anecdotal observations, in which I hear speculation regardless of gender, race, culture, ethnicity, or occupation. This piece feels redemptive or the patriarchal shadow that our many of our cultures cast on us as chismosas. My own observations simply return that women gossip in the spaces they inhabit, while men gossip within theirs, and that as gender equality continues to evolve those spaces will become eventually identical.
Of course, while these studies explain the reason gossip is so common and give us great insight into the psychological, sociological, and evolutionary role of el chisme, experts and common sense agree that speaking about someone behind their back can hurt them and cause a disturbance of varying proportions. The positive effects of gossip on the development of culture notwithstanding, we are each accountable for our actions and the feelings those brings up in the subject of our idle chatter. While it’s nice to know that gossiping is natural, not always harmful or malicious, and can even bring about self-improvement, it behooves us to stop and think before picking up the phone and getting straight into the “ay, mija, no te vas a imaginar lo que acabo de oír…”