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One of the things you can imagine about living on an island, or in a small community, is that you’d better watch what you say and do, because if you don’t, someone’s going to tell your momma. Or if not tell your momma, they’ll gossip about it themselves, and peer at you strangely when you go by. It might be that lady up there, looking out her window, or it might be someone else. But somehow, people will find out. And when they do, it won’t be pretty.

For years, I have heard people talk about how Chile is an island. Ecologically, it’s true, as it turns out pretty much no plant or animal gets in unless we bring it in, because we’re bordered by ocean on two sides, the driest desert in the world on one, and the Andes on the other.

Chileans often use the island analogy to talk about how isolating it is to be here, when they know that great ideas are happening elsewhere. A photographer I know is convinced his career will take off and creativity will skyrocket if he could go would and study somewhere else (and he may be right). A guy I met the other night who does interactive art has to go study somewhere else, because “acá no hay” (lit: here there isn’t any of that). Chile is just now starting to host important conferences, Global Voices was here a few years ago, and TEDtalks is coming on Saturday (and no, I wasn’t able to score a ticket), and Common Pitch, which I’ll be honest, I’m not really even sure what it is, is also coming this weekend.

But despite that, the “somos una isla” (we’re an island) prevails and prevails. For me (and I actually did grow up on an island, but not that kind of island, Brooklyn hardly seems like a small town, nor does Long Island, where it is located), I have had a hard time understanding how, exactly, this affects people, and why they say it all the time, because well, I didn’t grow up here.

The Expression

Alot of words and expressions get whirled around me, and I guess I listen pretty carefully and I love language, and expressions, and last night someone asked me (first time I’ve heard it phrased like this), “¿Si eres gringa, porqué hablas como latino?” (If you’re a gringa, why do you talk like a latino?). But despite how I talk, I’m not from here, or Latin America at all. And there are some expressions I’ll never get behind. And one of those expressions is “el que dirán.”

Language check. Just so we know what we’re dealing with here, here’s a mini Spanish lesson.

Qué (with an accent mark) is what, where what is asking a question.
Que (without an accent mark) is the what of relative clauses, or where what that does not ask a question (I don’t care what you say, that que/what does not get an accent mark) There’s some question as to which que goes here, but we’ve settled (with the help of a commenter) on the one with the accent mark, details below.

Decir is to say
Dir– is the root of decir
án is the simple future ending for the third person plural (ellos, ellas, Ustedes)
and in buen chileno (good Chilean Spanish), like in good Brooklynese, there is a powerful and invisible “they.” No one knows who “they” are, but “they” smashed up your car or “they” are building a new superhighway through your garden. In Spanish this invisible “they” shows up in the verb ending for ellos (they/them).

¿Qué dirán? asks the simple question “what will they say?” It differs from “¿Que van a decir?” (also what will they say, but with a different verb tense). ¿Qué dirán? gives you a sense of urgency and irrevocability and importance. Or at least it does for me (native speakers, feel free to disagree). In addition, in the sentence “¿Qué van a decir?,” there’s this sense that the object is missing. Let’s fix that. “¿Qué te van a decir?” What are they going to say to you, or what are they going to tell you.

But there’s no “te” in my “Qué dirán?” That’s because this invisible “they” is not going to say anything to you, they’re going to say it about you.

But this isn’t really about what people will or won’t say about you, which would be about ¿qué dirán?

This is about El qué dirán, which turns the question into a noun.
Urban Dictionary defines it thusly:

El Qué Dirán
The unspoken belief in latin-american culture that every person’s actions in society are subject to the scrutiny and criticism of every person they know. El Qué Dirán is a way to regulate the behaviors of the fringes of Latin America, by concentrating the disapproval of their parents and friends through gossip…

It is no longer a question, but rather an invisible societal force that prevents you from acting in a way unbefitting to your friends, family, church, state, sopaipilla vendor, etc, so that no one will talk trash about you behind your back. It is a way of ensuring conformity, and also, ironically, of making fun of people who are conformists. You can say that someone is “super preocupado con el qué dirán” (very worried about the “what people will say.”)

Gossip is such a strong part of the culture here, we even have three words for it, chisme (Spanish proper), and cahuín, the second of which can also be used to describe an event at which you pelar (make fun of, literally “to peel” people). Copuchar is another good one, with a gossipy person being a copuchenta. All three are usually considered to be the domain of women. Ahem.

I had never really bought Chileans insistance that this is an island culture (and holy big island, with 4000 km of coastline, and 17 million inhabitants). But when I hear people talking about el qué dirán, I think one of two things. Either we’re living on an island, or in a time warp.

When was the last time you asked yourself “but what will people think?” or “what will people say?” Or at least asked it out loud? Or tried to control other people’s actions on the basis of public disapproval? To me it seems like something June Cleaver would say to Wally to keep him in line.

The Cost
I think it’s a terrible drain on the national self-esteem levels, and on creativity, and innovation, and free-thinking, and a bevy of other things I was brought up (in the United States) to value. Though on the other hand, no one is ever going to talk about Chileans as a culture of know-it-alls or self-aggrandizers (which would likely pain them). Not so, United States. On the other, other hand, who gives a rat’s poto what people say? It’s a bit of a cycle.

I really wish in Chile, we could get a little less of “what will people say,” to say nothing of “el chaqueteo” (pulling people down (by their jackets), to make sure that if not everyone has success, then no one does.), and just see what bubbles up to the top. Maybe what they’d say is “man, what a genius, I wish I’d thought of that.” A little orgullo ajeno, if you will (being proud for other people, and I’m pretty sure I invented this term).

–Commenter Nat says it should be el qué dirán, not el que dirán, according to the RAE. I’m not sure I agree, but they’re the RAE, so I made the change.