How Gossip Works

Trying to read up on how gossip really works, I found a nice ’79 article: Teasing, Gossip, and Local Names on Rapanui. Sadly, Google scholar says it only ever got three cites. That seems an underestimate of its value to me. The rest of this post is just lots of quotes:

The primary proviso is that persons who tease others to their faces are always in an equal or superior age status to those whom they tease. Elders tease children or elder siblings or cousins tease their junior relations. Women and men who are married couples should not tease one another in public, for this would mean lack of respect (mô’a). Close kin should have confidence (pe’e) with one another and should not tease in public, though teases in intimate surroundings between junior and senior do occur. …

Teasing is to insult someone, even if the offended party does not respond at the time of the tease. Some persons have a quick and ready wit; to attempt to tease them is a risk in itself, for the tease may backfire. A tease is an indirect criticism, a softened blow and, for the most part, a gentle rebuke in a culture where physical violence outside the immediate nuclear family is very rare and rarely visible …

Teases, especially if people are unable to voice them fully at the time of the relev cident, may be held back and related to others after the object …Gossip is an act of collusion, the recounting of information about someone absent. … Asymmetrical power relations require that a tease be severely softened or foregone altogether. …

Rapanui on the whole do not regard gossip as accurate reportage and carefully scrutinize the source and circumstances of stories about people absent, however much they might feign absolute belief at the time of hearing gossip from friends and relations. Many Rapanui deprecate gossip and gossips, but most islanders like to relate a good story or hear one when it is being told by someone they trust. People presume that gossips have an interest in purveying the information that they do. People gossip to one another to bolster their own prestige as valuable informants or to reduce the standing of another, absent person. …

Some Rapanui are fearful of listening to gossip and refuse to hear stories from anyone but their most intimate kin. Women may refuse to visit other women and do not invite others to their homes for fear of gossip. As each nuclear family has a separate dwelling or, at least, plans for the construction of one, this makes for effective separation between some individuals. Persons standing together in a group almost always are listening to or trading gossip, and people carefully judge the composition of a group before joining it. …

Simply to hear gossip is to lend credence to it, and to repeat it to the person who is the object of the tale is often interpreted as an accusation …

Ngeu is a kind of joking, though sometimes serious, gossip accusing one or sometimes both partners in a marriage of being unfaithful. Gossip of this sort can and does break up marriages, though people are well aware that the information may be false. To accept or to reject such information about one’s spouse or relative is to show confidence in the teller of the tale and to collude against the person featured in the story …

 When information of which one does not approve is being spread in gossip, then the purveyors of such stories may be spoken of as doing kati-kati, inventing false events. Even if the information is accurate, one can still term a gossip who speaks badly of someone else as performing ami or, if doing it often, as ami-ami. The gossiping person, if someone alleges that the content of the message is false, may be termed papaki. …

There is a group of individuals in the community, the subjects themselves of much demarcating gossip, who people say have “tongues that wave like tree branches in the wind” and should not be trusted. One nuclear family on the island carries the local name …, for to tell them anything is like casting a light cinder on the wind; it blows everywhere. Amohingo is a well-known term for some person or some group who cannot be trusted to keep a secret or to tell the truth, for they are always carrying words. … One of my informants who shunned gossip sessions and whose discretion (and isolation) is famous in the community referred to perpetual gossips as eve erua (double farters) …

There is a general anxiety about finding oneself the sub- ject of comment’ …

Of the mass of teasing events that transpire on any day among Rapanui, only a few of these will come to circulate as gossip. There is variability among the Rapanui as to gossiping and teasing, with some persons not indulging in these activities at all, while others practice them often and even with some success. …

The largest number (67%) [of people with local names] all have stories which began as teases and circulated, for a time, as gossip. The use of the local names reiterates the tease each time people use the name; on those occasions when someone must explain the name, the tease circulates as gossip, usually when the person beatinr the local name is absent. Some names, because they particular annoy the people bearing them, are never used in the bearer’s presence, while other freely circulate. 

The very ambiguity of humor, upon which the game seems so heavily to depend, permits cohesion and division without commitment to clearly defined codes. In most societies, people believe that the victim should not take the tease too seriously; each in their turn ought to grin and to bear their personal “degradation ceremony” as a part of community. …

 In rumor, useful information about events, forthcoming and past, concerns the speaker and the listener. … Like the teaser, the gossip seeks consensus, agreement that the comment upon person performed inappropriately. … Gossip “suggests that ‘we the gossippers’ are closer to each other than ‘they’ the gossippees, are to either of us …

A person who has [confidence] with someone will be careful about imparting intimate information about that person, particularly if there is a dependency relationship of junior to senior. … If a senior becomes disgruntled with the behavior of a junior, then he or she can use his influence to block the junior’s plans … Power, then, does play a role in the enunciation of teases, the propagation of gossip, and the giving of local names. … Ridicule in teasing, gossip, and local naming becomes particularly important in the context of the often unflattering epithets given to foreigners who have dominated the Rapanui over the years, either as sheep ranch managers or as Chilean officials. As with gossip, the use of uncomplimentary local names is an act of collusion among the Rapanui against outsiders, especially outsiders in power …

Teasing demonstrates publicly, for those present, that an offender has entered into a separate status, which is that of inappropriate or extraordinary performer. Gossip takes over from teasing as a stronger form of verbal reprimand for behavior. When the gossip becomes fixed into a local name, the process is complete. … Local names [can] be discarded, altered, or renewed on successive occasions. …

Anthropologists should be aware that much of the material we record in our field notes is often derived from gossip, told to us by informants who wish to demonstrate their confidence and trust in us. We should be aware that an element of collusion may be part of any informant’s confidence in us. 

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