As I join yet another Zoom call with my college friends, my mind rushes through the events of the day, trying to recollect something, anything important enough to share with them. After the perfunctory “how are you” and the daily mourning ritual for the loss of “the best days of our lives”, we fall into the routine hunt for interesting things to say. While I do enjoy listening to how many times my friend’s neighbour’s dog peed on the staircase, it doesn’t really count as riveting news. Looking back, I realise most of my interactions with people through the pandemic have a key element missing. At the risk of sounding like a nosy aunty from your neighbourhood – Where is the gossip?
Human beings are social creatures – in most social settings, we require gossip of some sort to sustain us. Popular culture has done its job in stereotyping gossip as the domain of teenage girls or middle-aged women, but in reality, gossip exists in almost every social circle, regardless of age or sex. Most of the toxicity associated with gossip is also largely a construct of popular media. People of all sections of society engage in gossip, and some historians term it as a sign of evolution. Gossip doesn’t just refer to the especially scandalous affairs taken from the rumour mill – it can involve information about places, people or events that people share with each other. Whether it’s new colleagues discussing who was seen flirting with the boss, or classmates bonding over their mutual dislike for a particular professor, or teachers pointing out the different quirks of students to each other – gossip is integral to the human experience.
In the list of things that people missed out on due to the pandemic, gossip definitely ranks high. Cooped up inside our houses for the better part of a year, most of us have witnessed a deficiency in the amount of gossip we get from people. It is not merely the content of gossip that one misses. Admittedly, hearing about the latest new couple around town, or the cops breaking up a party nearby is a sorely missed feeling. What one also misses, however, is the experience of getting gossip itself. Bumping into a fellow student at the campus mess, grabbing a cup of coffee and talking about the highlights of your day – these are all experiences that one took for granted in the pre-pandemic days. These conversations were ringed with an air of spontaneity that one simply cannot replicate through virtual interactions. Even though in the last few years technology has made virtual interactions seamless through texting apps and video calls, there are still certain feelings that one cannot experience online.
Gossip needs an atmosphere to thrive in. As cliched as the high school movies’ depiction of gossip spreading like wildfire is, it does have some truth to it. Oftentimes, gossip is a result of unprompted discussions, chance encounters and unplanned meetings. Every interaction that happens online has an air of deliberation to it. Although social media has made staying connected through the pandemic much easier, it has also highlighted the difference between online and offline communication. The casual intimacy of impromptu meetings, sitting together in silence, passing a friend in the hallway and stopping to wave at them – the virtual world is unable to recreate these. The experience of sharing gossip during the pandemic, therefore, is restricted to exclamation points, emojis and the occasional high-pitched screaming voice note. Not to mention, considering that the rest of the world has also been restricted to their houses, there is hardly any “gossip-worthy” information.
For gossip to spread, it first needs to exist. Because of the lockdown, people are no longer going outside to parties or even having a mundane day at the office. The physical isolation has ensured that the only scandalous thing that happens is when someone notices another not wearing a mask. While people have resorted to other forms of entertainment like making dalgona coffee or baking banana bread in quarantine, the void that gossip has left is still felt quite strongly.
The Coronavirus pandemic has brought about major changes in the lives that we lead, in what is now fondly known as the ‘new normal’. The actual ‘normalcy’ of the new normal remains contested since at every turn we’re faced with new ways to behave, new issues to deal with and new forms of interaction to adapt to. In this milieu of major social as well as political shifts, we often miss the little things the most. The lack of gossip is just one of those shifts in our lives that serve to remind us of the way we used to be.
By relegating people to their houses and human interactions to phone screens the pandemic has fundamentally changed our relationship with other people. It has set a fear in us against strangers and even against people of our own community due to the virus. When we lament the loss of time with our friends or the monotonous routine that we’re stuck in at home, we’re also lamenting the deeper loss of a sense of connection with people. Gossip is but one of the consequences of a virtual existence that is both connected as well as disconnected.
Akanksha Mishra is a second-year political science and media studies student at Ashoka University.
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