Behind Your Back

January 2, 2019

On a given day, one-fifth to two-thirds of conversation is dedicated to gossip. On the higher end, that is around three hours per day, 21 hours per week, and 156 hours per year. Just to put that into perspective, if you spent 15 minutes of your day defecating, that is only 91.25 hours per year. So if we are going to spend more time talking shit than physically expelling it, there better be a good reason why.

When I was in high school, I prided myself in being one of the few students who did not care about gossip. To me, the whispers proved more vicious than intriguing, more flawed than true. On the off chance that I was unwillingly cast in the current drama, I would devote all of my energy to setting the record straight or wait for it to blow over with the inevitable appearance of the next episode.

During a school trip, a classmate accused me of engaging in relations with two other students, having supposedly heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend. I did not take well to the ordeal, screaming at the accuser in a public restaurant. Eventually, we pegged the whole thing down to a misunderstanding—an original mishearing that sunk deeper with confirmation bias. Gossip felt like the worst game of cat’s cradle ever, each passing along of the string inciting further distortion.

The societal perception of gossipers is probably best represented by the character of Regina George from Mean Girls (2004): shallow, manipulative, and vain. As a teenager, there’s no worse feeling than walking past the school’s popular gang of Plastics and hearing their conversation suddenly stop, save for a few snickers. Yet, in reality, it seems like the instigators of gossip don’t always fit this profile— professors gossip just as much as their students and mothers just as much as their thirteen-year-old daughters.

In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, author Yuval Noah Harari identifies gossip as a cornerstone of social harmony. According to Harari, our language evolved to adopt gossip because knowing “who hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat” allows us to form the strategic connections that build a large, complex social network. On that note, gossip also promotes intimacy between the participating parties. We can identify those who are like us when they share our mental attitudes towards other people.

Moreover, Harari writes, gossip calls out and discourages misbehaviors, “protecting our society from cheats and freeloaders.” Kevin Kniffin, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, observed the social interactions of the university row team for 18 months. His findings revealed that gossip of a disapproving nature peaked with the presence of a slacker, allowing all members to be aware of the person’s shortcomings. In cases like these, gossip enforces cultural rules through the threat of a ruined reputation. Likewise, in a 1985 study of Silicon Valley companies, gossip helped new hires adapt to the unsaid rules of their workplace, such as what topics to not bring up to the boss.

Despite its utilities, the toxic undertones of gossip eclipse its primary role as a transmitter of information necessary to the formation of social webs and maintenance of a productive society. Perhaps, this is due to the fact that those skilled in its manipulation, i.e. the “Plastics” of the world, gain more traction with increasingly risqué canards. The fact that denigrating stories tend to prevail is less informative of their tellers than the society that perpetuates them: We are so captivated by the subject’s taboo that we overlook its validity. Moreover, we must consider what makes certain tales disparaging in the first place—why was it so damning that I, a girl, was thought to be promiscuous? If one of my male friends were in my position, it may be a less “behind the back” and more “pat on the back” moment.

I can’t say that I haven’t reaped the benefits of the few things I’ve heard through the grapevine—gossip probably subconsciously influenced which friends I made, which classes I chose, and which people I dated. That being said, I still intend to take any tea spillage with a grain of salt. Reputations may be informative, but they are not always indicative of the truth. Likewise, gossip is not morally black or white—we must remain wary to the kind of gossip that encourages an erosion of solidarity.

On the other side of the coin, if you do become the subject of slanderous gossip, it wouldn’t hurt to emulate Regina George for a moment and say, “I found out that everyone hates me. I don’t care.”


Leina Hsu
Leina is the Executive of Opinion, majoring in English and double minoring in Women's and Gender Studies and Art. Her favorite poetic form is the sonnet.

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