Overheard at the Office

I have a confession.

As a kid, I was a pretty unrepentant eavesdropper. I was basically the only kid in a household of adults, and nobody ever told me anything, so I’d “go to bed” when I was told and listen. It went pretty well with not being able to fall asleep in the early evening— a problem I have to this day.

So let me just admit up front, before I start complaining, that I get it.

Over the last few years, though, I’ve noticed this trend that troubles me. This afternoon’s example— “(so and so, with whom I’m not close and have never had a conversation on the topic) tells me you’re (religious denomination). Is that true?”

It’s really not that it’s a state secret, but it’s a little unsettling to hear something about yourself third-hand— especially something personal in the professional world. I keep my personal conversations held at low volume, I keep my cards fairly close to the vest. And yet, I hear all about myself in unexpected ways. This also happened at my last job “(so and so, with whom I’m not close and have never had a conversation on the topic) tells me you went to yoga with Other Unnamed Coworker, today. How was your class?”

My desire for privacy and propensity for paranoia is pretty well-established, but does it not make anyone else uncomfortable to be approached this way? I appreciate that the person is showing an interest in something that interests me, but it’s unsettling:  “Other person and I were talking about you and here’s what I know that you didn’t tell me (or for that matter, her)…”

This may be my old-fashioned sensibilities, but I’d so prefer to be approached by someone who feigned a little more in the way of polite ignorance.”Doing anything fun this weekend?” “Did I hear that you were a lunchtime yogi?” Something that let me keep the illusion that casual, one-on-one conversations were not held over some sort of amplifying device.

One of my coworkers recently told me that she’d miss overhearing about my recent adventures in homebuying/moving in the wake of a departure of one of my coworkers. I said “you know, you could stop by and we could talk about it. You’re welcome to flag me down and we can talk, or ask me about it any time…” It was pretty clear that she wasn’t interested in that. It made me feel… something less than human. I’ve been known to be overly sensitive, but because adult me deliberately tries to tune out conversations into which I’m not actively invited, it leaves me at quite a bit of a disadvantage.

A few years ago, a coworker and I had an exchange in my office with the door open that was funny in real life, in the context of our relationship. I read about it on social media 20 minutes later, and my coworker came off as the victim of snark at my hands. I was teasing him, but I wasn’t trying to humiliate him, and when a third party posted about it, I was concerned that it would seem different to him/the world.

I know that we’re in a semi-public space and there are things we can’t help overhearing. And sometimes, we’re interested enough to listen in. But is it really so hard for us to talk to each other, not about each other?

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