Updated: Mar 29
Written by: Gladys Bayani Heitzman
I recently read an article in Esquire Philippines titled “This Is Why There Are No Serial Killers in the Philippines” which included one particular theory surrounding the argument that though it is not impossible to have serial killers in the country, the heavy tsismosa/chismosa (gossiper) culture creates an environment which seems to deter any possible future individuals from terrorizing a community with a series of killings. The article quoted an anonymous poster who said, “It’s hard to be a serial killer in a country where everyone is so nosy.” Moreover, the “Marites” is the Filipino internet’s personification of the idea of a meddlesome tsismosa who is known to stand in the street and entices other middle-aged women to join her in her mission to disperse the latest tsismis (gossip).
The Marites is a mainstream reference and a staple to Filipino pop culture. Though a stereotype, the Philippines does have a very pervasive and normalized culture around tsismis. As a Filipino American living in the states, I can confirm that gossip is just as alive and well here as it is in the Philippines. The only difference is that it is typically done in private here, hidden away in the conversations of a small group of people. People in the United States and other western cultures commonly view gossip as a “culture-killer” and have demonized the act, even sometimes dismissing it as “idle women’s talk.”
Historically, the concept of gossip has been mostly associated with women. If you trace far back into the past, you will find that the word “gossip” comes from the Old English word ‘godsibb’ which was used to describe godparents or, more generally, close friends. Later, it became a term applied for women-friends as it applied to a woman's female friends invited to be present at a birth. Thereafter, it transitioned again to becoming a term that referred to an informal local social group.
In Spanish, the negative connotation of gossip is more apparent. The Spanish “chisme,” or gossip, is derived from the Latin ‘schisma,’ meaning a split or divide in a group of people—this is also the origin of the English word “schism.” In this sense, a chismosa is a woman who causes strife and division. In both English and Spanish, the words for gossip are tinged with the misogyny of western cultures. Although the Philippines has its own distinct cultures that have influenced the contemporary view of tsismis and the tsismosa, it is difficult to disentangle the Filipino experience of gossip from that of its western counterparts due to the history of colonization and its linguistic fallout. Instead, comparing Filipino and American cultural concepts like gossip/tsismis helps send the distinctions into sharper relief.
For instance, the cultural significance of the Marites reminds me of the American term "Karen," as both names evoke a particular image and stereotype in our minds. There is a stark difference though, as the name Karen is a pejorative term used as an insult and in a derogatory manner, while Marites remains relatively neutral, non-offensive, and usually used in good humor. This could be because a Karen is seen to serve no constructive purpose for the community—they are an angry, obnoxious, entitled, and often racist character who uses their privilege to make complaints and demands in order to get their way. In contrast, a Marites serves a well-defined and deeply entrenched purpose—the Filipino culture views the tsismosa as a vital social component of any community.
Marites carries a mixed legacy. We may dislike how they have created a hobby out of talking about the private lives of other people, and we may be anxious about what they say about us when we are not around. However, we depend on them to learn information that we would not be able to secure another way. When the government and official channels are moving slow or withholding details, or during times when it is hard to trust those sources, we look to the Marites. Unlike corrupt politicians or biased national news sites, we trust the Marites as a dependable source of information because of their inherent allegiance to their community.
Tsismis is not innately evil—it is a social skill that is interwoven into our culture, creating bonds and connections with each other. Information is a powerful possession, however, what we do with that information is what determines whether tsismis brings people closer to one another or drives them apart. Sharing information with positive intentions can serve as a warning, resolve conflict, create or develop social relationships, and strengthen the community that makes this social communication possible in the first place.