The Truth About Tsismis

Gossip seems like harmless fun until you're the one being talked about. Find out why rumors spread and what you can do to stay away from them.
by Stephanie Booth
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Is it true that where there's smoke (rumor), there's fire (truth)? Here, Cosmo dissects the gossip grapevine.

Anatomy Of A Rumor

Contrary to what you might think, 'rumors don't necessarily spring from a catty desire to wreck someone's rep. "The driving force behind a rumor is a deep need to figure out the truth," says Ralph Rosnow, PhD, professor emeritus of pyschology at Temple University and author of People Studying People. "When you feel anxious and uncertain about a lack of info, your mind goes into overdrive filling in the missing details."

The hitch: All that digging can cause  people's imaginations to run wild. And thanks to high-speed gossip transmitters like email, blogging, and text messaging, the story can get twisted pretty fast. So, even if there is a kernel of truth to a specific rumor that's circulating, it won't stay accurate for long, explains Jack Levin, PhD, professor of sociology at Northeastern University and author of Gossip: The Inside Scoop. "The more intriguing that choice morsel is, the more fervently speculation builds around it, and the further from the truth you're likely to get."

Fact or Fiction?

Now you're probably asking yourself, well then, how do I know what's true and what's not? First, consider whether or not the dish originated from an "organized grapevine," explains Nicholas DiFonzo, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of The Social and Organizational Psychology of Rumor. "A story that springs from a network of people, like your office, is more likely to be valid because everyone involved is motivated to get to the bottom of a specific question that directly affects them," (Is our boss really leaving?) he says.

In fact, in the workplace, there's a whopping 90 percent chance that lunch hour buzz will be accurate, says DiFonzo. But consider the source—is it coming from a chatty intern who isn't as vested in your company, your boss's assistant who's privy to the behind-the-scenes scoop, or a superior who never dishes unless she's dead sure?

"If the person who is disseminating the information has a historically high rate of accuracy, is in a position of power, is moderately skeptical in nature, and has a way of verifying or checking the information that they're spreading, it follows that you should give their story more credence," says DiFonzo.

So, are photo-splashed celebrity tabloids considered credible sources? Well, yes and no. "Think of a provocative photograph as the grain of truth that has been uncovered by the organized grapevine of reporters and has now set the public's minds in  motion," says DiFonzo. "When you see a photo of two celebrities kissing, you want to know what it means. But it's just like seeing a single frame of a movie. It lacks context, so the reporters assign it meaning—such as 'Did they elope?'—which you in turn believe because you have the photographic proof. The thought process is 'I saw it with my own eyes, therefore it must be true.'" The problem? Unlike your self-interested office network, this grapevine has an alternate agenda, says DiFonzo. "Tabloid journalists' primary interest is not necessarily to uncover the truth; I would think they're probably more interested in titillating the public."

Repeat Offender

Regardless of whether or not a rumor is true, the more it's repeated, the more credibility it earns, and the power it holds over its intended target increases. "If a person constantly hears how miserable they supposedly are, they'll probably feel more miserable," says Levin. "Our brains are structured to learn by rote, that is, to remember via repetition."

Repeatedly listening to the same rumor has a similar effect as hearing a commercial jingle over and over—you're humming it by day's end. Say your neighbor continually insists that your landlord is a mob kingpin. Not only will you start to believe it, but you may pass it on to someone else as fact.

Stifling Smack Talk

Surprisingly, while instinct might tell you to refute a false accusation emphatically and repeatedly, desperation to clear your rep may actually reinforce the rumor. "No amount of denial will put a rumor to rest," says Levin. "In fact, the more you 'doth protest,' the more guilty you will appear." By cornering everyone and their third cousin to ensure them that you're innocent (Hindi ako ang nasa sex video na 'yan!), you "unwittingly perpetuate the rumor by keeping it on everyone's mind," says Levin. And as we already learned, the more frequently a rumor is repeated, the more credible it becomes.

Your best bet: Simply refuse to comment on trivial trash talk by saying once and only once, "That's ridiculous—and you know it." That said, if your relationship, career, or reputation is seriously at stake, it can pay to hit a rumor head-on, according to Fredrick Koenig, PhD, author of Rumor in the Marketplace and spin controller for major corporations. "Appeal to the most socially-connected person you know and tell them your side of the story. You need credibility on your side to set the record straight, and people will be quick to accept the word of a leader as truth." As the rumor is discredited, Koenig says, so is the reputation of the person who spread it...a good reason to keep your gossiping in check.

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