I’m basically a cartoon. I’m slightly under five feet tall, my hair is enormous, my clothes are ridiculous, and I’m almost always laughing and dancing around. When I’m feeling cartoonish, which is most of the time, I am lighter than air, smaller than an atom, happier than a clam. Have you ever heard of anyone being HAPPIER than a clam? Cartoons can get sad—they have their hearts broken and lose family members and have to put their dogs down—but they bounce back on their feet with one of those impossible ninja moves and keep smiling.
I’ve been a cartoon most of my life, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s how I learned to deal with the world. Trying to pinpoint when is tough. I was a very tiny person in elementary school—almost a foot smaller than the other kids my age. People constantly made the joke, “I didn’t see you down there!” and I took that VERY seriously. They were literally overlooking me! To make my voice heard, I cracked jokes, played characters, and I dressed oddly, often wearing a shoe from one pair on my left foot and a shoe from another pair on my right, which in hindsight couldn’t have been good for my feet. I was a gymnast and loved to perform my paltry handstand skills to prove my height was an asset. I imagined people saying, “What a useful person she is!” What they said was closer to, “She’s good at gymnastics because she’s small!” (In gymnastics, shorter girls are considered to perform better because they have less “body” to throw around.) But as long as I was recognized for my height, the observation was OK with me. Any time someone described me as “the small girl,” I thought, Hey, at least they know who I am!
But I also became some people’s wind-up toy: They just sat back and expected me to entertain. I remember being at a party as a freshman in high school and kids from school wanted me to tell stories about my family, because I was related to a few eccentrics and could do impressions of them all. They laughed and seemed to love it, but there was a disconnect between the person they watched and the real person inside. We barely knew each other. They didn’t ask me questions, or seem to care to ask questions. I’d wanted to stand out, and now I did. But I was no less alone because of it. My classmates were drawn to me in school because my antics added silliness and unpredictability to otherwise monotonous days. But when it was time to go home, those people chose to hang out with their real, close friends. As a solitary kid and preteen, my antics were a way to get people talk to me, even if what they were saying was just droning white noise. In high school, I wanted the noise to stop.
When I got to college, I met a girl named Claire who grew up in a similar way: People liked to watch her dress up in costumes and play characters; she was lonely but not alone. She made a short video called “Glow Man’s Thoughts,” which made me cry the first time I saw it, and still makes me cry, because it’s the perfect summation of everything I’ve ever felt in my life: that people like to look at me, and I like when they look at me, but I don’t always like to talk to them. Glow Man likes to be alone. And that’s true about me, too:
Being alone means I don’t have to be “on.” I can be cranky and tired, and I can be sad. A guy I worked with once asked me to “turn it off for a second” when I was doing a bunch of silly characters and voices. He claimed that I wasn’t being the real “me.” I lowered my voice and forced tears (a beautiful performance, I might add), then whispered, “Real like this?” He freaked out and insisted I return to my “happy” character. A good cartoon doesn’t get sad unless it’s to cry hilariously large tears into an overflowing bucket. But alone, I can cry normal-sized tears into a normal-sized bucket. I love to cry—it feels cleansing—and occasionally when I have nothing to do I revel in sadness for a day. I have certain rituals that I do to keep myself sane, when no one is watching. Sometimes it’s reading, sometimes it’s drawing. Lately, I’ve been opening my window and staring outside for a long time, for up to hours on end. I process all the feelings I don’t have the time or energy to otherwise think about, and turn off my phone and computer and all interactions with other people. I think about things I saw and heard on the street, friends who are getting on my nerves, about heartbreak and how I feel about being a recent college graduate with uncertain life plans. I keep track of time by watching the elevated train go by.
Recently my cartoon persona has been helping me pursue something I’ve always wanted to do, which is comedy. I can use the same techniques that saved my ass in school from utter and complete loneliness to draw in an audience through storytelling, characters, or full reenactments of Fiddler on the Roof in which I play the Roof. I know how to keep people entertained, and I’ve also figured out the other half of the equation—how to keep myself content and balanced. Tune in next week when I get an anvil dropped on my head but get back up and keep laughing. ♦
How did empathy, of all things, become something I hate? I used to think empathy was the all-purpose cleaner for social ills. I thought that if I could just muster up enough compassion and care for others, I could solve any conflict. Empathy was first defined for me in class, where teachers brought it up as a way to resolve disputes between students. I was supposed to use empathy not only to understand my classmates, but also to connect with the overwhelmingly white protagonists in the novels I’d been assigned to read at home. Empathy seemed like the easy fix: If we could just understand one another, conflict wouldn’t exist and oppression would evaporate.
Over the past few months, I’ve had empathy thrown at me on social media and during offline conversations, not as an extended hand of love but as a silencing tactic. I’ve heard a billion variations of the same tired message: I’ll make my case against a straight cis white man with toxic opinions about trans people, and the people watching the conversation unfold will tell me, “Maybe he was just brought up this way, you really can’t blame him.” Why can’t I understand that white men are only human? That they are flawed, like all people, and that they deserve patience and kindness? Why can’t I just give him some of that universal empathy—everyone deserves empathy, right?
In an ideal world, everyone would have equal access to empathy, but empathy, like equality, is one of those utopian values that operates within the systems that reward some people at the expense of others. We can’t talk about empathy without talking about how systems of oppression influence who gets empathy and who doesn’t. And we can’t demand that empathy be given to all people while ignoring the fact that some people are still denied their basic humanity.
The world works in ways that make it much easier for white people to receive praise, mercy, and other forms of generosity. This shows up in the ways that white people, (and non-Black people of color who sometimes have access to white resources), have their freedom spared and their humanity preserved, even when they commit terrible crimes. Crimes committed by white people are seen as isolated incidents, despite the fact that white people make up most of the leadership of corporations that commit large-scale violence on marginalized communities through environmental pollution, prisons, and outright murder. The majority of school shootings are perpetrated by white men, but we have yet to see white communities being policed as if whiteness is criminal by default. When white or white-passing people commit terrible crimes, they are treated with empathy by mainstream media, who search for reasons to “understand” what went wrong with the shooter as a kid. Proximity to whiteness, and other privileged identities, means access to empathy, even when you’ve committed the most heinous acts of violence.
The emotional lives of white people, whether expressed through music, film, or otherwise, are treated gently and polished often. White people have, in other words, the benefit of being seen as fully human and therefore most deserving of empathy. I still cannot forget how angry I was after seeing international leaders march hand in hand after the Charlie Hebdo shooting while there was not nearly the same performance of support and solidarity during the Black Lives Matter movement. This was the most glaring example of why #BlackLivesMatter was necessary and how the humanity of Black people was being deliberately denied. And when I posted a comment about this on social media, a white man scorned me for not having enough empathy for those slain in France.
For those living in the margins, empathy arrives—in crumbs—only when someone finds a way to attach a marginal issue to privileged people. To make feminism appeal to men, women call themselves “sisters, daughters, mothers, and aunts” of men, rather than people who are under attack by patriarchy. They are forced to ask “What if she was your mother?” rather than “Why can’t you see her as her own person and acknowledge her pain on her own terms?” The women, and their experiences, become an afterthought. Their voices are only heard when they can prove that feminism will help men too. They are displaced from the center of their own fight.
The same goes for representation in films. Marginal narratives like those of trans people are stolen and glued to Jared Leto or Eddie Redmayne. Our pain draws empathy only when people can avoid confronting our bodies and seeing us for everything we are. We are only appealing to audiences when we fit the script of helpless trans people needing to be saved or when our narratives are plastered on an actor deemed more human. We are forced to cater to “relatability” because if the privileged can’t relate to us, then we may as well not exist at all. Our pain draws empathy when we are disembodied and made invisible.
As a brown-skinned, queer, and trans Asian millennial, empathy is often out of my reach. When I voice concerns about being a person of color at a predominantly white college, white students criticize my tone instead of addressing my concern. When I demand that trans roles in movies be given to trans people, I am dismissed as asking for too much.
I used to blame myself when people neglected to give me the empathy they offered others. I thought that maybe it was my tone, or that I was too assertive, or that it was just me. But as my support system of people of color grew, I learned to recognize my worth. I understood how growing up in a culture where white people were the only people I saw being celebrated, where straight people were the only possible role models, and where trans people were topics of discussion only as corpses rather than as people, had made me so used to being erased. Without even realizing it, I prioritized others with more privilege than me, and began to erase myself, too. I would sweat to make myself as physically small as possible in public spaces, so that they could expand and fill up the world with their presence. I’d become quiet in political spaces, out of habit, to let them voice all of their biases without pushback. I had become used to my own ideas and experiences being painted as invalid, imaginary, hysterical, and exaggerated.
My community of people of color showed me that if I mirrored the lack of empathy with which society treated me, I would continue to hurt myself, and talk about myself with more hatred than love. It has taken me 19 years of life to realize that I do deserve respect, that I do get to narrate my life and my body and my history. I learned to take care of myself. But the burden should not be on me to shift my thinking; it is the responsibility of those with more power—on this uneven playing field—to call for an empathy that falls in line with justice.
I don’t want to know if you can understand what it’s like to be me. I want to know that you will give me the due respect despite your inability to understand.
If you can only empathize with me when I fit a pre-packaged narrative about queer and trans people of color, or when my narrative is filtered through a white male body, please keep your empathy away from me.
My presence is enough. My body is enough. My voice is enough. ♦
I have lived my whole life swearing there’s no truth more complete than Walt Whitman’s parenthetical line in the poem “Song of Myself”: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” I believe we are capable of anything—that anyone can be driven to do extreme harm; that anyone could be moved to radiate extreme love. I believe a person could switch from open-hearted tenderness to cruelty. I believe in nuance. I believe in contradiction. I believe in mistakes, and giving people the space, and the right, to make them.
But I believe in abuse, too. Clear-cut abuse. I believe that sometimes nuance is unhelpful in abusive situations, especially when it involves telling yourself that your abuser can “sometimes be kind and loving,” especially when your faith in someone’s multitudes keeps you in an abusive relationship instead of getting the hell out. I believe that trying to love someone who consistently hurts, and erases, and destroys you can turn you into an empty shell of nothing. These beliefs have been harder-earned.
“You’re an idealist,” my best friend said two years ago, after I told him about my growing suspicion that I was in an abusive relationship.
“It’s not fair to say I’m the victim and he’s the abuser. Sometimes the shit I do to him is straight-up evil. Sometimes I think he’s the victim and I’m the abuser. It’s complicated.”
“Of course it is,” he said. “No victim is ‘perfectly innocent’ if you dig deep enough into their lives. And it shouldn’t matter. Victims of abuse shouldn’t have to prove they’re perfect angels. Some situations require that you smash your idealism away and—at least for the time being—see things in black and white. No shade. Yeah, in an ideal world, forgiveness is infinite, and so is compassion. Yeah, in an ideal world, we can get into the full contradictions and complexities of someone who is a victim of abuse without it being a way to dismiss and undermine that person. But you can’t operate under those ideals right now. He’s abusing you and you need to end it and get out. Full stop.”
“No,” I said, “It’s more complicated than that.”
“Full end stop,” he repeated.
After my parents’ messy divorce when I was eight years old, my family situation was mad stressful. My mom, brother, and I stayed in our family home, and my father moved to a house on the opposite end of town. My mother got custody of us, but the arrangement was more like a joint custody situation: We were allowed see our dad whenever we wanted to. With both parents in the picture, I assumed that meant there would be a continuation of my somewhat normal life, with each of them playing their roles when it came to practical stuff like making arrangements for school field trips, giving me pocket money, and driving me around. I was wrong.
I never doubted my mom or dad’s love for my little brother or me, but because my parents refused to talk, we often became collateral in their cold war. When I mentioned one parent to the other, that parent scowled and said something bad about the ex-spouse in question. It was one thing to have to grudgingly accept the reality that my parents split up. It was something else entirely to feel doomed to being forever caught between the two people I loved most when they couldn’t stand each other anymore.
My father is the laid back, permissive, hands off parent. He likes to have his children out of his way so that he can carry on about his business. Anything you want? You can have it, as long as it requires minimal intervention from him—a “don’t even bother with the details, just be back at a decent hour” kind of vibe. My mother, on the other hand, is strict. She needs to know every single detail about an outing with friends, an assurance that I will return before it gets dark, and everyone’s parents’ phone numbers for good measure. The one thing they have in common is the inability to communicate without it dissolving into an argument.
Being the responsibility of two people who lived in two different parts of town with two different ways of doing things sucked on most days. Instead of speaking to each other, my parents often opted to relay messages like “Tell your father that…” and “Well, actually, tell your mom I said…” through me. The details are a little fuzzy about what I asked for, but I can easily recall the feeling of abandonment that sunk in the first time my mother’s answer to a request of mine was, “Ask your father, Lebohang. I just won’t be able to.” The thought of my mother, whom I had gotten used to as my main parent, saying no, and of me having to get on the phone to beg my dad, whom I was rarely seeing at that point, really made me feel alone.
If I was invited to a party, I would wait for days on end for an answer about whether I could go and who could take me there while the back and forth happened. It usually ended on the day of the event with me urgently pleading with both of them, “______’s party is today, and I still don’t know who’s gonna pick me up!” Sometimes each concluded that they couldn’t fetch me, and that was that. In those situations, tasked with the responsibility of making sure my life actually carried on while my folks were being stubborn, I would ask my friends’ parents for rides. It sometimes felt like no one had to be present enough to take my needs seriously, except me.
Back then, getting advice to “talk” to my parents about how their stalemate made me feel was incredibly frustrating. My mom and dad were able to acknowledge my pain (when I was 12, in a rare moment of agreement, they decided I should start going to counseling), and they occasionally apologized. But there were times I’d get off the phone with my dad, who had the habit of raising his voice when he spoke about my mom, and run to my mom’s room crying because of how heavy it was that he loathed the woman who was the light of my whole world. Their relationship was so damaged that absolutely nothing could make it better, not even my obvious sadness and discomfort.
For high school, I went away to boarding school in another city, where I became less emotionally reliant on my mom as my primary caretaker. I didn’t see her or my dad for weeks at a time. There were amazing shows, exhibitions, and parties happening, none of which my parents even needed to know I was going to in the first place, so I didn’t have to ask them for permission or rides. I got a fixed allowance, and started doing poetry performances and some freelance writing, which meant I was making some of my own money, too. Little by little, I was shrugging off the need to get my mom or my dad involved in making decisions about my life. Many of my friends were getting their driver’s licenses, and when the time came for me, the push/pull between my parents—like usual—stalled and delayed every step of the process. This time, though, I chose to ignore them, save up the money to go to a driving school, and get my permit on my own.
I have now lived most of my life with my parents’ refusal to communicate with each other being the normal state of affairs. My parents are stuck in their ways, but they’re only human—they’re dealing with their own issues. I try my best to keep in mind that if I want to be a priority, I have to be my own priority. This approach beats waiting on them, especially now that I’m old enough to put my desires and feelings first. When I want something, I try to do what’s required of me to get it. It would be a lot harder to change them than it is to make earnest attempts to take care of myself. I figure that I have to be the one to take the initiative, and if I ever get stuck or need help, I’ll call them (separately). ♦
Whenever I’m bored—on a long bus ride where I’ve forgotten to bring a book, or when I’m procrastinating on a particularly unexciting writing project—I often end up playing this game with no winner. It has only one rule, and it is to come up with as many reasons I can think of as to why I suck. (Fun game, huh?) A montage unfolds in my head of all the mean and petty things I have ever done, as I become the world’s crappiest hero in an edited version of my life.
Let’s quickly *woosh* back in time a dozen years or so, when I was but a mere sixth grader desperately looking for approval from whomever was in the immediate ranks above me on the social ladder. I told two of my best friends—let’s call them Lila and Elena, characters in a book I’m reading—that I had a special announcement to make, and then watched as the anticipation in their eyes turned to confusion when I said, “I need us to stop being friends.” I acted like a jerk. Scratch that, I was a jerk. Their sins were that they didn’t care about clothes and boys the way the popular girls did, and I wanted to distance myself from them to prove my coolness. I thought (secretly hoped?) that they would agree that we were drifting in different directions, that we would now sit in our respective new social circles come lunchtime with no hard feelings toward one another. Instead, I made them cry.
That night, Lila called my house and left a voicemail in a sad, quiet voice, saying she was confused and wanted to talk more. My mom heard the message, asked me what had happened, and admonished me for my cruelty. “I did not raise you to treat people that way,” she yelled, and I started to cry as well. Feeling guilty for what I had done, I called Lila back and apologized.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” I said. I just wanted to fit in with the popular girls, I told her, conveniently shifting the blame. Even my apology was motivated by selfishness: I truly did feel ashamed of what I did, but in that moment, I needed Lila to alleviate my guilt by forgiving me. I needed her to make me feel OK about myself. I needed to be able to hang up the phone and tell my mom that I had made it all better. My feelings continued to be the top priority, trampling over everything else. I can’t even remember what Lila said after she told me it was fine. Lesson totally learned, right?
Lila and Elena (who I called next) both forgave me, and I went back to sitting with them at lunch the next day, but the rest of the year was off. There was distance between us: They shared less with me, our mutual friends (who knew what I had done) didn’t trust me as much, and I was invited to fewer get-togethers. Our friendship was fizzling out—which, ironically, was what I’d once wanted, but made me feel lonely when it happened—and it was my fault. At first I was frustrated that they were leaving me out of things, but any time I started to get angry at them, I remembered my past cruelty and thought, Would I want to be my friend after that happened? I wanted everything to go back to normal after I apologized, to delete that incident from my mind and move on, but I couldn’t. My actions had consequences, and I had to live with them. The next year we ended up going to different middle schools. We kept in touch sporadically over chat, but never went back to being the close friends we once were.
When I apologized to Lila and Elena, I wanted to be a good person, but more than that, I wanted other people to think I was a good person. I still want that. I care so much about being liked, probably more than I care about being respected. Being liked is a nice feeling! Apologizing when you’ve hurt somebody, especially your friends, is important! Yet the more I have screwed up and apologized over the years (it has happened, ahem, a few times), I have learned to ask myself whom the apology is serving the most.
A couple years ago, I was back in my hometown for Thanksgiving, and I went with my mom to the grocery story. I recognized the cashier: She was a girl I went to high school with. In the eleventh grade, a rumor went around that at a party, she got so drunk she slept with an older guy without knowing his name. I stayed quiet while some of my classmates called her a slut—even though I knew in my gut there was something off about a situation in which a girl was vilified for having sex and nobody was giving the guy hell.
In the store, we exchanged small awkward smiles of recognition, but I couldn’t maintain eye contact for more than a second before looking at my shoes. By the time she had graduated high school (she was a year ahead of me), the accepted theory was that she was still “that slut,” and I hadn’t kept track of what had been going on in her life in the years since. (I myself had spent those years sitting in a university classroom taking Women’s Studies and reading blog posts about slut shaming and rape culture, and proudly declaring that I was against all those evil, evil things.) I wanted to say something, tell her how bad I felt about what had happened to her in high school, even if that meant putting her on the spot at her job in front of my mother, just so that I could convince myself I was no longer the person I was in the eleventh grade. I ended up saying nothing.
My old classmate probably had no idea whether I’d spoken up for her back in eleventh grade, and maybe didn’t even care: Who actually stood to benefit the most from me apologizing? An uncomfortable but important question that I’ve since had to learn to ask myself every time I want to say “I’m sorry” is: Am I doing this because I want to atone for the hurt I’ve caused someone, or am I doing this because I want to make a public showing about How Bad I Feel? In determining whether it’s the latter, I think about whether I’m apologizing only because I want things to go back to the way they were before (like I wanted with Lila and Elena)—or with a willingness to accept that, because of my actions, people might not forgive me (like what actually happened with Lila and Elena), as is their right?
I like to imagine that every personal screwup of mine is some roadblock to overcome on my personal journal to Total Enlightenment™—a phrase that I definitely just coined for the first time ever right now. And yes, maybe I would like to get to a place in which my Totally Enlightened™ self is adored by all and all my mistakes can be universally recognized as merely character building blocks and all is forgiven and nobody points out when I mix my metaphors. But regardless of how much I may have changed or grown or how many Women’s Studies courses I have taken, sometimes the best thing I can do is recognize that even when I’m REALLY, truly sorry, nobody owes me their forgiveness. ♦
I was popular in high school. In fact, I pretty much fit the stereotype of what a “popular girl” was like. I was confident, dismissive, well-liked (and -despised), and mean. Looking back on those days, I’m embarrassed—I had a major superiority complex. But my feelings of superiority didn’t just come from being told I was “cool” and “pretty.” They also stemmed from my own deeply ingrained anti-black racism and colorism.
You may be asking, “But can black people even be anti-black?” The answer is absolutely YES. Anti-black racism is worldwide; it’s part of the institutions, cultures, and communities that shape our lives. Colorism is basically internalized anti-black racism. Alice Walker coined the term to describe the social and cultural practice where people are considered of greater value, intellect, and beauty the closer they are to whiteness. Colorism is the reason that European beauty standards are reinforced within communities of color. When these biases are internalized, they can show up as a fear of “looking black,” and trying to look as “racially ambiguous,” or as not-black as possible.
My colorism was subtle, and it took me a looong while to realize that these biases were embedded in my own brain. I was mean, but it wasn’t like I’d walk around screaming that my light brown complexion made me better and more attractive than my darker-skinned classmates. Still, I distinctly remember feeling above them. I rarely spoke to the black girls in my class, and on the rare occasion that I did, I felt embarrassed to be in conversation with them. I identified as Ethiopian—never as black—because identifying as Ethiopian allowed me to play up my “exoticism” while also seeming proud of my heritage.
At school, I hung out strictly with the mixed and “racially ambiguous” girls and we thought we were IT. We were the mean-girl clique from your favorite teen movie, but in place of white skin and blonde hair, we were brown with long, curly hair. Since my high school was predominantly black and brown, looking like you were mixed was praised and worshipped. By some weird logic, our faces, bodies, and hair combined the “best of both worlds.”
Even so, as girls who were close to blackness but who were invested in being not-black, we were careful to reject all stereotypes of what blackness looked, acted, and sounded like. If black girls were supposed to be loud and aggressive, then we were soft-spoken and composed. We rarely ever wore our hair in “too-black” hairstyles like braids or twists, and we didn’t listen to hip hop, bashment, or grime—again, “too black.” My reward for distancing myself from blackness was hearing my white and brown friends tell me that, in their eyes, I wasn’t really black.
Among East Africans—specifically Ethiopians, Eritreans, and Somalis—the idea that we aren’t really, properly black, is actually pretty common. Often, people from southern and West Africa agree with us, maybe because many East Africans have features that adhere to Western beauty norms—narrow noses, loosely coiled hair, lighter skin. But establishing our difference from other Africans also comes with a dose of anti-blackness. At home, my mother would comment on my younger sisters’ hair, saying that it was “too rough” and “African-like.” My sisters have darker skin than I do, and my mom would advise them to stay out of the sun to avoid getting any darker. Blackness was something to be ashamed of.
The sense that blackness was undesirable was all too obvious at school, too. There, to be a “too-black” girl meant to be unwanted—romantically and socially. Whenever a black girl spoke up in class discussions my classmates would snicker and mumble, as though black girls were less smart. The “cool” boys made no secret of the fact that, in their eyes, black girls were unattractive and masculine (as though that itself was insulting). Insults like, “Her hair is so picky,” meaning “nappy” in UK/Caribbean slang, and “She looks like a beast,” were all too common. It’d be a lie to suggest that I didn’t benefit from my school’s toxic hierarchy. But at the time I wanted to be admired and I wanted to fit in, so I made choices that fueled my own social status and power.
When I was 16, the weird structure of my school became super clear. Guys were asking girls to prom, and I noticed that even guys in relationships with darker-skinned black girls were asking lighter-skinned girls to be their dates—just to impress their friends! The lighter-skinned girls were sparkly gems that you could wear on a special occasion, while darker-skinned girls weren’t considered fit for special occasions. If nobody could be true to their actual feelings, and everyone’s self-esteem was governed by this colorist, anti-black hierarchy, then something was seriously wrong. I began to feel disgusted with myself and embarrassed to have valued the opinions of these people. I had to rid myself of this way of thinking.
Gossip is sort of like chicken pox. Levied among a group, it spreads quickly and indiscriminately until everyone within reach is afflicted—but, thankfully, most of it has about a two-week lifespan before it goes away and life returns to normal (though you never really forget how miserable you felt while it was going down). Unlike chicken pox, which usually happens to a person once and never again, gossip is so pervasive that you’re absolutely guaranteed to be on the giving and receiving ends at some point, sometimes several times a week.
There are so many reasons that people gossip. If you tend to only share mean-spirited gossip, maybe it’s because exchanging some nasty words about a person that annoys you can temporarily make you feel better. When you’re already feeling bad, there’s a certain childish joy in making someone feel worse than you. Non-malicious motivations include our species’ overwhelming love of being “first”—that is, feeling like we’ve got the jump on an interesting or funny tidbit about someone’s life (like how the paparazzi compete to publish the first photo of a celebrity baby, even though all babies kind of look the same, which is to say like weird little root vegetables). Gossip can be a bonding experience between new friends who know a third party—after all, you know you’ve got at least one thing in common, which means you might as well talk about that thing (and that thing’s crush, and that thing’s questionable choice of haircuts, et cetera, et cetera).
The anthropologist Robin Dunbar “has suggested that gossip is a vital evolutionary factor in the development of our brains; language came about because of the need to spread gossip, and not the other way round. Gossip allows us to talk about people who aren’t present; it also allows us to teach others how to relate to individuals they have never seen before.” In this way, gossip is important because it functions as a means by which to protect ourselves: lf you hear a dude has been sketchy to girls in the past, or you know from a close friend that someone you know cheats on tests, that could save you from a gnarly situation the next time that person texts you asking to hang out or study.
Unfortunately, most of the time, gossip isn’t done in the name of righting wrongs, as anyone who’s been a victim of it knows. You put your trust in a friend, you got burned, and now everybody knows your secrets. You’ve got to do damage control on your relationship with that person, as well as with the waiting public, whose whispers seem to follow everywhere you go. It’s embarrassing and exhausting and leaves you wondering if you can ever trust anyone again.
And then there’s the sticky situation you find yourself in if you’re the one caught doing the gossiping. You’ve taken someone’s personal information and made it public without their consent, violating your friend’s trust and ostensibly complicating their life even further. You fucked up, dude. And for what? The thrill of being the first to share a cool story? In an attempt to bond with new friends (whom I would seriously reconsider being friends with, if they’re the type that love to gossip)? Regardless, you’re going to have to do a lot of apologizing in the weeks to come—and prepare to not be trusted for a really, really long time.
Gossiping is so universal that engaging in it, though bad, doesn’t brand you forever as A Bad Person. With a little help, anyone can subvert their negative behavior patterns, or rise above all sorts of situations. It’s hard work, but necessary. Even Mother Theresa wrote prayers to help her to deal with the compelling pull of gossip:
These are the few ways we can practice humility:
To speak as little as possible of one’s self.
To mind one’s own business.
Not to want to manage other people’s affairs.
To avoid curiosity.
To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully.
To pass over the mistakes of others.
To accept insults and injuries.
To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked.
To be kind and gentle even under provocation.
Never to stand on one’s dignity.
To choose always the hardest.
Here is our Pokédex—Rookédex?—of gossips, complete with enough identifying information to help you spot each species in the wild. I’ve also listed possible face-saving solutions to help you recover if you suddenly find yourself a victim of loose lips. If you are the gossip, I’ve included recovery plans with advice on curbing your behavior (and many valid reasons you should knock it the hell off).