“So another game is called Gossip, and you sit in a circle and one person, or I think it has been called Telephone, but it’s also called Gossip, and so one person has a secret to tell the person next to them, so they whisper it into their ear, and then it goes around the circle, the next person has to whisper it and the next and the next and the next, and then when you get to the end, the last person says what they heard from that person and compare it to what the person originally said. And that’s the game.”
The informant was a 50-year-old woman who works as a middle school teacher teaching English, dance, and history to 7th and 8th graders. Although she has spent the last 19 years living in the San Francisco Bay Area, she grew up in Lubbock, Texas and Austin, Texas. She is also my mother, and this interview took place over Skype one afternoon when we were talking about things she did when she was growing up that she has observed taking place among her students now. She learned this game, “probably in elementary school . . . in Houston, Texas. We played it in like a second grade class, in a circle.”
The informant thinks “two reasons [the game is] attractive to people is because it’s interesting to see what comes out at the end, if you compare what originally was said with what was it, so you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s so weird that you never hear the same thing at the end that it started out to be, so it’s interesting to see what it warps into.’ And I guess the other reason it’s called Gossip it what you originally say isn’t what you hear at the end. So, the message is diluted when other people say it.” The informant implied this is also what she thinks it means.
This game was interesting to me when the informant explained it because I know it is “Telephone.” This game is an easy game to play with a lot of people who do not necessarily know each other, and it is variable in the amount of time it takes to play. The fact that the informant knows it as “Gossip” and learned to play it when she was in elementary school is somewhat revealing about what this game actually means. While it is fun to see how the original message gets changed as people hear and interpret it, it also seems like there is a deeper message behind its simple actions. This game functions as a way to teach children about the way gossip works in our society, and how what you say can be changed into something unrecognizable by the end. The way the information is transmitted may be boiled down and expedited, but it is still a helpful demonstration of a larger social phenomenon.
The metaphor described verbatim by informant:
“That’s about gossip. That’s a Puerto Rican saying about gossip. I learned it from my mother, my Puerto Rican mother. Who would hear people talking about stuff especially about like somebody’s marriage or you know ‘Oh you know she did this’ or you know ‘They’re doing that’ or ‘This happened’ when it’s something going you know you hear that something isn’t right in a marriage or a family, and my mother was always quick to say, really, she would say, ‘You know what, you and I can look in and we can make all sorts of judgments but the truth is, none of us know for sure, because no one knows what’s in the pot except the one who stirs it.’ And she’d say that in Spanish. No one knows what’s in the pot except the one who stirs it. And that’s the truth isn’t it? So my mother was always quick to say that because she really wanted me to understand that I shouldn’t judge. That’s really what she was saying to me: be careful how you judge other people’s actions cuz you really don’t know what’s going on. I thought that was lovely. My mother was always, she was all about that really, she was all about that. Because judgment was really huge in Puerto Rico, you know? Everybody’s watching you, everybody’s watching what you do.”
The fishbowl living that my informant experienced while growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico is a big part of why this proverb holds meaning to her. As my informant infers, the saying relates to people’s assumptions and preconceived judgments—“Nobody knows what’s in the pot except the one who stirs it.” You think you might understand other people’s situations or give yourself the authority to pass judgment but you don’t. Coming from a place where everyone talks about everyone else’s business and gossip is rampant, my informant says her mother did her best to teach her the opposite. The metaphor in cooking terms also aligns well with the culture because it’s women who traditionally cook and, in many cases, gossip.
Whenever your ear itches, it mean’s someone is either saying good things about your or bad things about you, depending on which side of your ear itches. Specifically when your left ear itches, bad things are being said; when your right ear itches, good things are being said.
My informant’s mother told her this proverb when she was 10 years old. She stated that one day while my informant and her mother were walking home from school, her mother said “My ear itches, someone must be talking about me.” My informant then asked what that meant and she explained this superstition to her. She then always answered with that statement when someone she knew said that their ear itched.
She said that this proverb was passed down from her grandmother to her mother. She believes it was a simple superstition due to the fact that Korean women are known to gossip frequently. Thus every time someone’s ear itches either good things or bad things are being said about them. She believed as a child if her ear itched a lot a certain day either people liked her a lot or despised her. My informants analysis makes a lot of sense as it provides quite the answer for a simple body reaction.
My informant lives in Irvine, California, where she participates in the marching band at her high school. The marching band is very closely-knit, made of about a hundred and twenty people, where, she said, “everyone knows everyone and anything that happens is general knowledge in like, two seconds.” Calling themselves bandos, they form somewhat of a sub-culture in their high school, always hanging around the music building and forming their friendships and relationships oftentimes solely within the confines of the marching band.
In this closely-knit community, they have an unofficial gossip publication called “The Lyre,” which is passed out to the members on the bus on their way to performances at football games and competitions. The secret of the writers of “The Lyre” is very heavily guarded, although most people know that they consist of a group of seniors hand-picked by the seniors from the previous year. “The Lyre” is written secretly, printed secretly, and circulated amongst the band at least once every other week, containing generally about fifty pieces of gossip about goings-on within the band, whether made-up or real. The title of “The Lyre,” in fact, is a pun on the word “liar,” and so about half of the gossip is usually fake, made with the intention of being humorous. The other half though, of course, is real, and though monitored by the band director to make sure that nothing potentially offensive makes it through, it caused, my informant says, some pretty awkward situations:
“I think I’ve been in it like ten times, which is an okay number, and none of them have been too bad, except for this one time when they uh, paired me up as a joke with this junior guy who I actually really liked, and I think the guy knew I liked him too. I was a freshman and he was a junior so obviously, you know, it was pretty hopeless and sad. Anyway, everyone always pokes fun at the people who are on The Lyre so they teased us about it for the rest of the football game, like making us stand next to each other in the performance arc and stuff, and since Winter Formal was coming up, they kept teasing me to ask him to formal, which I actually really wanted to do, but then now that they’d said it I didn’t want to do it anymore obviously, because they’d think it was a joke or something. And the writers of the Lyre would feel so freakin’ important. So yeah. They had a whole shitload of control.
A piece of gossip would be presented with the initials of those involved (which were usually very easily recognizable, especially if you were the only one in the band with those initials), like this:
KL and DJ have been seen spotted frolicking off-campus for lunch. Sure didn’t look like they were “just friends” when they were sharing ice cream in the Crossroads the other day.
The fake ones were generally very obviously fake:
SM has had flowers growing on her head for the past week! Who planted it, and who’s watering it? It continues to be a mystery.
Nobody took “The Lyre” very seriously, however, and it was always somewhat of a joke, something light and funny to read on the long bus rides to football games and competitions. “It probably came from how close we all were,” She said. “I think if any other club or group did this, it probably would never have worked out. People would’ve gotten offended or something, and there would’ve been drama. But we all knew each other so well, and so these little things never mattered to us, it was all just funny. And it was also a way to get closer too, through like, shared pain and embarrassment, or something. It’s like, a place to cultivate our inside jokes and isolate ourselves even more from the rest of school. [Laughing] It’s such a cultish thing to do, but it was so fun.”