Issue 9

The Way We Were – Gossip (Or Lack Thereof) In A Pandemic

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. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 9

Dating From A Distance

“I was going back home for the mid-semester break in March 2020 in our college shuttle and had the usual daydreaming to my playlist planned for the ride. Once the journey started, I noticed the person sitting next to me tapping their feet and lip-syncing to all the songs I was listening to. I couldn’t help but start a conversation. Even though it has been almost a year since we have physically seen each other, we have been together for 8 months.”  

Dating has been one of the ways in which individuals satisfy their need to form personal connections with others. It can usually start with anyone from their seventh-grade desk partner, college classmate or their Bumble match. While the concept of dating began with the ‘gentleman caller’ in the 20th century, with men having to follow proper protocol to pursue the woman they desire, the aim of dating and wanting to establish a long-term relationship, either bound by marriage or other types of commitment, hasn’t transformed as much. 

This human condition of craving connection did not change even when the pandemic struck. Now confined to four walls, physical interactions limited only between family or with oneself, there is no doubt that individuals are experiencing extreme loneliness. How has the world of dating adapted to these circumstances?

1. RIP Meet cutes

One majorly fantasised aspect of dating is the ‘meet-cute’ that represents the start of an attraction between two individuals who later delve into a relationship. Rom-coms have encouraged these heart-throb fantasies of two hands that happen to reach out to the same book in the library or the intense eye-contact between two characters bumping into each other in the corridor. They feel heart-warming because they play on the aspect of ‘fate’ that gets two individuals together for the first time, resulting in a bond. 

With COVID-19, this fantasy surrounding ‘fate’ is crushed, as the only meet-cutes that are acceptable are ‘accidentally’ sliding into someone’s zoom chat. While dating apps were considered the last resort to finding a relationship since they defied the idea of ‘fate’, they have now showcased a massive increase in users during lockdown with individuals hoping to find their potential someone. In fact, these apps were one of the crucial means through which individuals were able to meet new people, in order to deal with the increased loneliness caused by physical isolation.

2. What is even ‘casual’ anymore?

Dating apps were treated as the last resort to find ‘love’ also because they were stereotyped to form superficial connections based on physical attributes hence, those who enrolled on such apps were viewed as aiming to be a part of the ‘hookup culture’. In contradiction to this, a study conducted in Switzerland found that those who swiped right were actually more likely to settle down in stable relationships than those who met by chance. 

Hookup culture implies engaging in casual sex, one-night stands that do not require one to be bound by emotional intimacy and commitment. However, thriving on physical attraction, and many still choosing to avoid meeting, what does it mean to be ‘casual’ in times of lockdown with the fear of catching an infection? 

3. The ‘jaana’ before the ‘dekha

With hookups out of the way, dating apps have now attracted a wider audience that wished for something ‘serious’ bound by commitment. However, if one is aware of the inability to physically meet the individual, why enrol on such apps in the first place?

While the ‘health benefits’ of flirting are a given, it is observed that ‘the physical’ is now kept aside with phrases like “when the pandemic is over” and individuals are strengthening their emotional connections, becoming more vulnerable than usual. With texting being the main source of communication, hiding behind our phones allows us to be more vulnerable easily, especially during times of distress and uncertainty. 

In addition to this, the fear of rejection also seems to have reduced when it comes to ‘shooting your shot’. While making the first move is equally terrifying, since there is pressure to be interesting enough for the individual to reply, public embarrassment of assuming one’s sexuality and availability can be avoided on such apps. We now have the upper hand since a match indicates that there exists a certain level of attraction between the two individuals and establishes compatibility. 

Finally, texting was usually treated as a stepping stone to actually going out on a date with an individual. However, with no such goal visible due to current circumstances, phone calls and Zoom Dates have become the norm, where the ‘physical’ seems to have taken a back seat. 

In contrast to this, pre-COVID, the butterflies for the physical attraction were a prerequisite for strong emotional bonds, and ‘tumhe jo maine dekha’ was before the ‘tumhe toh maine jaana’. Has physical attraction and proximity receded in importance when it comes to relationships? 

4. One-night stands—but make them emotional

Speaking of emotional connections, an interesting concept while not formally addressed was brought to light in conversation with various dating app users from the college-going age group, which is termed as ‘emotional one-night stands’. Here, individuals have begun to match with people only to share their share of struggles and deep insecurities for the night and un-match with them the next morning.

No doubt the pandemic has been a source of immense distress and anxiety, and this is just one of the mechanisms people have adapted to in order to cope since it is often said to be easier to talk to strangers than to peers and family. 

5. The Zoom Date

Previously, the notion of going out on a date didn’t just involve eating out in a restaurant, there were other underlying routines behind it that made it an encompassing experience. You would start with actually having a date, planning logistics, informing friends, deciding outfits and constructing white lies for parents. It’s about being nervous to see them for the first time, awkward pauses, reading their body language, judging and responding to it and just praying you don’t have spinach stuck in your teeth. An important means to reduce nervousness has always been discovering points of commonality, and eating together and sharing the same food that creates a common experience unique to the two individuals, thereby allowing for a starting point in the conversation. Now, the point of commonality has shifted to the pandemic, a common experience for all, with its varying repercussions for many. 

While dating apps have adapted to the technologically dependent world with video calls, does the Zoom date capture the whole experience? 

In conclusion, while the ambiguity of dating cannot be replicated online, it has produced certain new experiences that are different from before, allowing people to be more vulnerable with the other person and going at a slower pace. Exchanging your phone numbers and informing the other that you are “deleting the app” is now the new form of showcasing commitment. 

P.S, you can now always blame your internet connection in case you end up with a bad date. 

 Harshita Bedi is a student at Ashoka University pursuing her Psychology major. In her free time, you would find Harshita catching up on her sleep.

Picture Credits: Verywell / Alison Czinkota

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).