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Overheard

Saturday, 2 November 2013

It is November 2nd.  I am sitting in Panera, listening to "Silent Night."  Two very small tables over, three Atlantan women are gossiping and exchanging stories, having a wonderful time between friends.  I have no idea what they are talking about because between the Christmas carol, the chatter from other tables, and the general mall noise around us, it's difficult to follow the conversation.

Now it's "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer."  I do some of my best writing at Panera, best not in the critical sense, but in the productive one.  After years of vacationing in a Florida town where it is the only place with reliable Internet, I am quite comfortable writing here with all of the activity around.

And listening.  I've heard a lot at Panera over the years because it is a place designed for conversation, albeit in close quarters.  Sometimes when my father and I get into it politically on a Panera Sunday morning, I wish the tables were farther apart.  Sometimes his positions embarrass me; sometimes my anger does.

NSA scandal aside, we are a culture who are comfortable listening in and, presumably, comfortable being overheard.

CASE IN POINT:  Yesterday, I ate lunch alone in a random, not-particularly good, not-particularly bad spot in a usually-overlooked area of a road with a number of nondescript restaurants. I had my iPad with me, as I do when I want a little downtime.  And that's what started to happen while I was waiting for my food, until the two women at the booth in front of mine started to talk about people that I know.  Hear the name of a couple you know, and you immediately zero in on the conversation.  That's what happened to me.  I was blind to whatever I looked at on the iPad, while all information entered through my ears.  I heard about how one of the women had grown up with the wife, before she met the husband, about one of the husband's failures, about their assessment of that failure, about their health, about a recent encounter, and on and on.

It seems worse as I write it, (perhaps I intend that) since the actual conversation was fairly benign.  These were women who like the couple in question, but who predictably fell into assessment.

There is a simple reality of life easily verified by any lunch or supper any of us have ever eaten with another person:  eventually, the talk is going to turn toward the discussion of some third, possibly fourth, possibly fifth, party and some judgement, evaluation, or clarification of that person or persons is going to follow.  It is going to happen.

And, in this case,  the three of us, the two conversationalists and the eavesdropper, live in a smallish city.  As much as I encounter people I know when I am in public places, it should not be a surprise to any of us that people around us whom we don't know are going to know people that we know, even if they don't know us.  But it does surprise us.  If people are not staring at us as we talk, the conversation feels insular.

But the other thing I wondered, as I sat there, was what I would do if the conversation about two of my friends had turned particularly brutal.  Did I have an obligation to say something?  To ask them to stop?  Would that be an invasion of their privacy?  Was there an ethical stand I needed to take?

Not sure if this is right, but I decided that if it got to that, I would take my food and move to a different table and not say anything to them or even make eye contact with them.  If that got their attention, fine.  If they never noticed, fine.  It does make me think that I will be a little more cautious, but that will likely pass soon, won't it?

The mall soundtrack is on "Winter Wonderland."  The women next to me are talking about how one them got kissed by a man whose wife wasn't present at their high school reunion.  Life goes on, and, when I return to work on Monday, those who know me and read this will want to know which couple that we all know was being talked about.

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