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Let’s Play A Game Of Telephone

An illustration of several people, each one passing some juicy gossip on to the next one.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby

When listeners ask about our anonymization process for Normal Gossip, we like to say that it’s like a game of telephone. That’s how gossip works, after all: A story is heard, internalized, metabolized, and then retold after having wrung through the teller’s brain. Details become more or less specific. Tensions heighten. Nuance, well, disappears. 

Zealous listeners still try to track down the true subjects of our stories. Any identifying details have been changed, and we reiterate that in our episodes that our story is anonymous, but that doesn’t stop people from trying anyway. (I’m making stern eye contact with you, everyone who has googled “male tears coster laurel.”) But sometimes I wonder if people really understand just how much a story can change with each retelling. 

So I had this chaotic idea to try and illustrate it. Way back at the beginning of Season 2 production, I picked out a short gossip story from our inbox that had everything we look for: moral dubiousness, a shocking twist, and, on top of it all, a viral TikTok video. I changed the major details to protect the guilty but kept the core elements of the story the same: a relationship, a breakup, a viral TikTok, and a concerned group of friends. 

What we do on this show is different from regular games of telephone because as we heighten tensions and add or subtract details, we’re also paying attention to the shape of the story we’re creating. We hate for our stories to be too tidy; in real life, true Good Guys and Bad Guys rarely exist. Everyone is a little bit awful and no one is entirely good. 

But this was an experiment for “science,” so I put all that aside. 

I wanted to see what our Season 2 guests would do when given complete control of a gossip story. So, before we recorded Episode 1, I had Kelsey take off her headphones and watch as I read my gossip morsel to our guest, Danielle Henderson. (Kelsey hated this part.) I read it once and told Danielle not to take any notes. Then, I asked her to tell the gossip back to me.

Then, before we recorded Episode 2, I played Danielle’s version of the gossip to our Episode 2 guest, Kalyn Kahler, and then had her tell the gossip back to me. This went on, and on, and on with every guest until the final episode, when Julia Furlan got to tell the ninth version of this story to Kelsey. 

Each story was a little bit different. Each guest brought their biases and assumptions to how they told their version of the stories. They created scenes that didn’t exist in the original, gave our protagonist a hometown—and also a cat named Greg, who then was re-named Mr. Mistoffelees, before Greg/Mr. Mistoffelees just completely disappeared.

The most interesting change, though, came about halfway through the season. All the nuance started dropping out of the story. In the original, our protagonist’s ex does a weird thing. In the final version, he’s a full-on homophobic scammer who preys on vulnerable, lonely men and then brags about it on the internet. The story we ended up with at the end was so far from the original that it also became a huge bummer. Like Justin says in the episode, if the final version had been submitted to us, we would’ve tagged it as “too dark :(” and said no thank you. 

Still, it was a fascinating experiment. To me, it showed how much of ourselves we insert into the stories we tell—even when they aren’t our stories at all. But perhaps to you it will tell a different story.

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(The transcript for this week’s episode can be found here.)

And if you do have some good goss that you want us to hear, the email for that is normalgossip@defector.com, or phone it in to 2-6-7-9-GOSSIP.