Please Pass the Paranoia: On the Dangers of Being Overheard

When having a private conversation in a public place--even a crowded New York City restaurant--you can never be too circumspect.

One evening, after a particularly stressful audition, an actress friend of mine named Katie decided to stop into Café Loup in Greenwich Village, to unwind a bit over a martini and some country pâté. After ordering, Katie took out her New Yorker and began to read when suddenly, amidst the ambient sound of the dinner hour bustle, she thought she heard her full name uttered--and in an oddly conversational tone, not as an address. It had come from the table next to her.

She hadn't been paying attention to these nearby diners. "But when you hear your full name spoken--and as you know, my last name is not a common one--it really gets your attention no matter how engrossing Malcolm Gladwell may be," she told me. Thinking it was someone she knew who had spotted her and was trying to be funny by casually dropping her name, Katie looked up pointedly and expectantly at the group, preparing to smile in recognition. She made eye contact with the person facing her. It was a woman she'd never seen before. At the table were another woman and a man, neither of whom she recognized. Katie looked back down at her magazine, thinking, Maybe I just imagined that, maybe I've got post-audition auditory dysfunction. But she kept listening. While she could not make out every word over the noise of the restaurant, she could tell the man was regaling his two dinner companions with a story about a friend of his who had expressed interest in a woman after seeing her online dating profile.

"Apparently from her photo this Katie ____ (here he used my friend's full name again!) has really huge bazongas," she heard the man say. "But Pat says her description made her sound kind of overly ambitious."

Embarrassed, Katie didn't know what to do. Should she get up and leave? Confront them and ask them to stop discussing her? In the end she stayed and finished her martini as quickly as possible, feeling confused and uncomfortable. She had no idea what photo the man could possibly be referring to--since the only pictures of herself she could remember posting were from the shoulders up--but she resolved to stay away from any suitor named Pat. To Katie's immense relief, the diners soon went on to other topics. But her much longed-for relaxing interlude was ruined.

We think because we live in a big city that the odds are slim to none that anyone we might be talking about will be within earshot. While people in a small town assume everyone knows everyone, and behave with corresponding discretion, we city-dwellers have this illusion of anonymity. We talk about the most personal things on a packed subway train, in the midst of crowded stores, buses, theaters, and restaurants. We offer up our intimate thoughts and feelings, and gossip about other people, completely ignoring the strangers present. Funnily enough, the more people there are, the more privacy we convince ourselves we have--when, mathematically speaking, a crowd actually increases the odds of someone knowing the person we are talking about. While it's true that a high level of crowd noise can create some privacy, it can also serve to make us more careless; invariably the din subsides at the very moment we are talking loudly about the illicit affair a colleague is having with her next door neighbor.

Also, in New York City, the connectivity of people exists with about three degrees of separation rather than six. People in the same fields tend to go to the same restaurants, parks and often even travel on the same subway lines.

It is for this reason that one editor I know uses code names for all the professional people in his life whenever he tells me about them over drinks. Super-paranoid about being overheard talking about people in his industry (he has a high-profile position in book publishing) he'll refer to his boss as "Red Balloon," his departmental nemesis as "Evil Kitty" and the head of the company as "Elephant." If anyone was actually listening to us during one of these discussions, it would sound more like a children's book plot than work gossip.

Just recently I was at Gennaro's restaurant on Amsterdam, talking to my friend Lisa about a mutual friend named Bob who was having a marital problem. It was 8:00pm and the restaurant was crowded. I leaned forward so as to speak directly into Lisa's ear, but not before craning my head around to the right and to the left to check out who might be at the tables beside and behind us. (Especially to see whether there were any singles. People sitting alone at a restaurant are always listening to conversations around them; they can't help it.) Lisa started laughing at me and shaking her head.

"Jesus, who do you think you are, Deep Throat? You think out of millions of people, Bob or one of his friends is going to be sitting at the table next to you?"

I refused to be embarrassed. "You just never know," I said.

And the thing is, you never do.

Of course, my mother would say the answer is to never gossip about anyone, ever. She is fond of quoting the old adage: "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."

My advice? If you don't have anything nice to say, say it in a whisper.


Museum Selfie-ishness


Recently, at the Museum of Modern Art with my niece, I found something unexpected blocking my favorite Van Gogh: a young woman standing with her back six inches away from the canvas, taking a "selfie." As we strolled around the galleries, I spotted more of them. Selfies in front of the Jackson Pollack. Selfies in front of Monet's Water Lilies. Selfies in front of Campbell's Soup Cans. Like most technology-driven social phenomena, museum selfies seemed to have mushroomed overnight.

Until recently, the only digital annoyance I remember having to contend with in art museums was other visitors photographing the art at close range. Many museums allow non-flash photography, and it's true that if a lot of people are taking pictures it can obstruct others' view of the painting. Still, why shouldn't someone be able to photograph a work of art they love -- in order to enjoy and remember their museum experience later? Obsessive photo-taking might be somewhat self-centered in that there is no consideration about how it is impinging on the sight lines of others around them. On the other hand, the desire to capture the beautiful images of the art makes it ultimately a forgivable practice.

However, the narcissistic knee-jerk act of the museum selfie is in a whole other category. Now, not only can't we see the art because someone is standing right in front of it, we are forced to look at the selfie subject(s) instead of the art. The art is now the background to the selfie-taker--as if it were wallpaper, or the view from the Empire State Building. The implication is that the work of art is secondary in importance to the person in front of it. Obviously it's your choice if you want to have Van Gogh's The Starry Night as your own personal backdrop (although I myself do not have that kind of hubris). The problem is that you are changing the art experience of those around you. Even when selfie-takers are not completely obscuring the art, it's psychologically impossible to ignore it when someone is making themselves the subject; it's hard to look past them at the painting. It is just like trying not to listen to someone talking on his cell on the train.

It's difficult to say which is worse: The fact that we seem to need to document every moment of our existence or the need to put ourselves at the center of everything. (The selfie has become such a part of our culture that it was even the title of a TV show on ABC.) Because digital photos are free and easily deletable images we are in the habit of taking them without much thought. In museums, we sense we are having an important experience. We see beautiful art. We are moved, excited. The contemporary conditioned response to this emotion is to whip out the camera. And it is also highly contagious behavior. Once you see someone else doing it, you figure: Wait, maybe this would make a cool picture--me in front of a famous painting. This would be great on Instagram.

It's pretty hard to fight the sweeping tide of cellphone selfie-taking per se. Besides, selfies are not all bad. In the old days when you traveled to Paris, you would have to ask a passerby to take a photo of your and your friend in front of the Eiffel Tower. Now you can just take it yourself. Isn't this convenience an improvement? I have also seen some wonderful museum selfie photos that are a playful or ironic statement on the art: for example, a picture of person standing to the side of the painting imitating the pose of the subject in the painting, or a photo where it looks as if the person depicted in the painting is actually holding the phone. This kind of art riffing--which some people might find offensive--demonstrates a creativity I can't really object to.

What I will object to is the "selfie stick," a device for extending the cellphone an additional arm's-length away. Even though I caught many people taking selfies in the museum, thank god I did not see anyone using one of these relatively new gadgets. (Is it just me, or does the term "selfie stick" sound pornographic?) The sticks are already in wide use in Asia, which is a sign they will probably be trending here very soon. What these accessories will mean in museums, of course, is an even more hindered view of the art, as using the stick allows for more people to fit into a group selfie-portrait.

So there I was, at MOMA with my niece, frowning inwardly and eschewing the whole self-involved, self-aggrandizing selfie trend. Until - er... guess what? My niece suddenly whipped out her iPhone to snap a selfie of us standing in front of a Gauguin. Did I resist? Did I take a stand against the decline of respect for great art? Or did I lean my head happily against my niece's, open my eyes wide and smile gaily?

Like I said, these technology things are contagious.

Beware My Derriere: The Etiquette or Sitting Down at the Theater

Every time I go to the theater and I find myself having to enter a row where there are people already seated, I experience the same moment of indecision: "How do I navigate this? Which way do I go in -- facing the stage or facing the people?" Most people I know go in with their backs to the others, but this always seems wrong to me. Especially if my row-mates remain seated as I am squeezing in, I am acutely aware of my butt having to travel by embarrassingly close to their faces. And if I should happen to step on someone's toes or bump their knees in the process, it is difficult to apologize over my shoulder.
However, after researching various "official" opinions as well as conducting an informal canvass of all my theater-going friends, it is clear that although European custom requires the theater or movie-going patron to enter the row while facing the back of the theater, the accepted practice in the United States is to go in facing the stage. In fact, both Emily Post (in her Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, 1922) and Amy Vanderbilt (in Amy Vanderbilt's New Complete Book of Etiquette, 1963) declared this back-to-face sliding-by operation to be absolutely the proper etiquette.
But even among Americans there are varying opinions, many of them adamant. One etiquette expert I came across professed the proper form to be that men go in facing the back of the theater, while women go in the opposite way -- a piece of etiquette-ology I find fairly bizarre. I mean, since gentlemen's feet are generally bigger than ladies', and ladies' rears are generally bigger than gentlemen's, if you were going to make a gender differentiation I would think it would be the gentleman going in facing front, and the lady facing the back of the theater. But either way it would look like some kind of weird line dance.
The argument for facing the stage is that it is more efficacious, because you can bend forward a little and slide in while pressing as far as possible into the seats in front of you. This way you are less likely to step on anyone's feet, and also you can preserve the illusion that you are not inches away from people, as you can't see them. Moreover, most people feel the close proximity makes it too embarrassing to pass by front-to-front. It's like facing someone in an elevator. "It's too intimate," etiquette maven Letitia Baldridge once wrote. "It looks like they are going to kiss."
I don't know about kissing but I almost always vote for conversational contact. (They don't call me "Miss Mingle" for nothing.) The rationale for facing people while making your way to your seat is just that--that you are able to interact with the people whom you are incommoding. It is considered good manners to thank people (or apologize, if you are coming in on the late side) as you inch by them, and it is much harder to thank people if you go by backwards; you cannot make eye contact easily. And of course there is the avoidance of the aforementioned butt-in-the-face issue (which I admittedly may be overly sensitive about, as I happen to have a particularly protrusive posterior.) Sometimes your course of action will depend on whether or not the row stands up for you (which if they are well-bred they will do). In that case, you can even go in slightly sideways.
Every decision regarding proper etiquette is made up of one part not discomforting others, and one part not looking like an idiot. What the theater seating question really comes down to is a choice between two variations of feeling awkward. I think for me, the point at which I started gravitating towards the face-to-face method happened a few years ago when, going in backwards along with the others in my party who were doing the same, I stumbled over someone's umbrella lying on the floor and ended up sitting in the lap of a rather portly man.
This was bad enough; but unfortunately, in my surprise and embarrassment, instead of saying, "I'm so sorry," I said "Thank you" -- which were the words that were on the tip of my tongue, since I had been murmuring them to everyone else in the row I was passing.
"Oh, no, thank you," the man laughed in response.

Over-Thanking It

These days everyone seems to be bemoaning the disappearance of courtesy. It's certainly arguable that -- in large part -- manners have been discarded along with land lines and typewriters and the milkman. I'm not sure about the milkman, but I know the loss of social niceties is, in general, not a good thing.

To have good manners is to consider the emotional well-being of someone besides yourself, which is why I have often emphasized the importance of saying "thank you" to anyone who has done something for you. But is it possible to thank someone too much?

Recently a friend of mine was invited to a house party on Cape Cod. (Well, it wasn't so much that she was invited as that she invited herself to tag along with mutual friends who were already going -- which is probably why she went a little overboard on the gratitude). To begin with, she brought two bottles of wine, as well as a "hostess gift" consisting of a large basket of gourmet cheeses, jams and syrups. After all, she reasoned, she was staying for several days, so a "pre- thank you" gesture was completely appropriate, right? During the three-day weekend, she made sure that whenever there was a shopping expedition, she chipped in. The morning of her departure, at breakfast, she expounded in an effusive manner about what a wonderful time she had had. As she was walking to the car to go home she thanked them again.

The night she got back to New York, she emailed some photos taken on the beach, along with "many, many thanks." The next day she snail-mailed what she had been taught by her grandmother was the obligatory hand-written thank-you note, in which she penned several more lines about how fabulous the weekend party was.

A few days later I happened to be chatting with her, and she told me she could not shake the disconcerting feeling that she had gone overboard on the thanking. When I heard the whole story, I had to agree.

When you thank someone over and over (and over), the "thankee" can begin to think something is required of him in return. He might begin to feel pressure to respond with, "It's nothing, don't worry about it," or "It's fine, I loved having you." The fact is, over-thanking can negate the whole purpose of a thank-you: to make the other person feel good. Instead, you may make him feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.

Excessive gratitude can also cause an imbalance of power in the relationship; it can make the thankee question his own generosity. He may wonder, Gosh, I must have done something extraordinary to have this person thanking me so excessively. Maybe I shouldn't have been quite that generous. Over-thanking is in the same category as saying "I'm sorry" too much. It's potentially unsettling.

Of course, modern technology tends to inspire an overabundance of knee-jerk gratitude. As Nick Bilton pointed out in his New York Times blog in March, there are a lot of people dashing off unnecessary thank-you emails. (Never mind automatic-reply Twitter DM thank-yous -- that's a whole other level of inanity). For example, an office worker might send a group email to twenty people, attaching the minutes to a meeting, to which fifteen people press Reply (or worse yet, the dreaded Reply All) simply to write "Thank you." Multiply that by several times a day and you end up with a LOT of unnecessary emails to open. Most people feel that this is a waste of time; instead of being polite, you are actually annoying. Not only that, but when you overuse a word it tends to lose its meaning -- then when gratefulness is really appropriate, the expression of it can ring hollow.

However, it's not just thoughtless individuals causing the problem. I know someone who is the opposite of thoughtless. He is so gallant that he routinely sends a thank-you note in response to receiving a thank-you note (true story, I swear). I told him this practice reminded me of when I was seven. I used to walk my friend Beth home from our playdate, whereupon she would turn around and walk me home, then I'd walk her home again...The goodbyes took longer than the actual playdate. Where does this kind of thing end? Unchecked, thank-you madness can also last forever, an interactive loop from which you can never escape.

What is the correct amount of thanking? Obviously it depends on the situation. Opening the door for someone engenders one kind of thank-you; having someone stay in your house for the week another. Old friends may not say "thank you" at all. Strangers may thank each other a lot. (I counted my thank-yous yesterday when I was in the bank: It was a whopping five). But ordinarily, unless someone has given you one of their kidneys, I'd say one or two sincere thank-yous is really thanks enough.

So did you enjoy this piece? If so, you don't have to thank me.


Horror in the Guest Room

When my hostess wanted to know if I would mind sharing a room, I just assumed she meant with another human.

"Be careful not to get too close to the bureau," Margaret said, as we entered what was to be my guest quarters for a weekend visit at her lovely house in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of D.C.

I glanced over to my left and saw, arranged symmetrically like giant honeycomb bee cells, sixty or seventy petri dishes lining the top of the bureau. They gave off a funky, murky odor.

"Annie's growing bacteria for her school science project," she explained, setting down my suitcase in a spot on the floor which, to my mind, was much too close to the aforementioned bureau.

"What kind of bacteria?" (I was trying with all my might to sound more interested than terrified, without much success).

"To tell you the truth I'm really not sure," Margaret answered with a half-embarrassed, half-nervous giggle. "I think it's something to do with parasites."

At the end of the first evening, having very purposefully consumed more wine than usual in the hopes that it would make me forget my replicating roommates, I got into bed with the kind of creepy-crawly feeling I had not felt since twenty years before when I lived in a roach-infested tenement apartment in Manhattan's Little Italy. I tried everything I could not to think of the teeming germs nearby. They can't jump out of the dishes, after all, I thought. Or could they? I told myself to get my mind on other things, but found myself counting bacteria instead of sheep: one cell enlarges, and then splits into two, then into four, then eight...

Margaret and her husband are dear friends, charming and generous hosts, fabulous cooks and delightful company. But this experience reminded me that no matter who you are visiting, you never know what awaits you once you decide to accept the role of house guest. You have to be ready for anything. And willing to go with the flow (or in this case, go with the grow).

The next morning over breakfast my hosts asked me cheerfully how I slept.

"Wonderfully!" was my enthusiastic answer, as of course it should always be, when one is fortunate enough to be invited to stay at someone else's house.  However, as these were very old friends of mine, I could not help adding, "Although I think I dreamt that I was in The Andromeda Strain."


TMI: Too Much Itinerary

I was just wondering how soon my friend Ruth might be coming up to New York for some long-overdue museum hopping when I happened to log onto Facebook, and there she was, in living, hi-res color. It was a post from the night before: “I’m in the Big Apple. Here I am at 55 Bar, drinking a hot tamale martini! :)"

I felt a small but distinct pang of hurt. Harrumph. Why hadn’t Ruth told me she was coming? Did she not want to see me for some reason? She usually stayed at my apartment when she was here. Did she find another person to stay with? Had I been nothing but a hotel to her?

Then I stopped and thought about it, and I realized that Ruth planning a New York trip which did not include me was not really the thing that was upsetting me. After all, New York is a city of eight million people; it would be unrealistic—not to mention egotistical—to think that my friends don’t ever come to see other people besides me. (It’s different when you are visiting a small town. If my friend in Essex, Connecticut found out I had gone all the way out there without calling him, it would be hard to explain.) No, it was the fact that Ruth did not seem to care whether I saw she was visiting. It was the unabashed public announcement of her presence that felt like a slap in the face.

“Checking in” on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Yelp and Path has become de rigueur for many people. I admit I don’t really get it; when I see something like, “Jim Smith just checked in at the IHOP on 14th Street,” I always wonder, “Am I supposed to hightail it on down there? Or maybe I’m supposed to ask what Jim is eating?”

Why is it that we feel everyone has to be alerted about everything about our lives? We have become a society of over-sharers. (The very word “share” has changed in connotation. “Sharing” photos of your kids or news of your latest accomplishment is not quite the same as sharing a loaf of bread with someone who’s hungry, or sharing the secret of happiness.) As if the me-generation wasn’t self-involved enough, it has evolved into the please-look-at-me generation.

Not surprisingly, many people tease me about my circumspection regarding the internet. One, referring to what he called my “sharing squeamishness” lectured me, “This is the information age! Privacy is old-fashioned. Too much information? Get over it. Embrace the new transparency, the new, more open life.” I’ll admit it’s true that for the most part these trivial check-ins are harmless--if sometimes annoying in their banality. However, it’s not harmless when someone posts about invitation-only events in a forum where there are people who were not invited, people whose feelings might be hurt unnecessarily.

These kinds of manners used to be a given. We learned the rules when we were six years old and started inviting people to our birthday parties. “Don’t tell Susie Johnson about the party, honey, if you’re not going to invite her,” our parents told us. “You will hurt her feelings. How would you like it if you found out there was a party you were not invited to?” What most of us didn’t realize when we were six is that when we grew up, this rule would be thrown out the window, thanks to social networking arenas where it is considered perfectly fine to break this basic rule of kindness. (And to add insult to injury, we are all supposed to “LIKE” these posts.)

I have written much on the generosity of not always telling the truth. In fact, many readers have criticized me for “promoting lying,” because I believe in going out of your way to protect someone else’s feelings, and that certain small acts of prevarication are the cornerstone of civilization. Being totally open and completely honest every second, no matter what, is not spiritual or emotional health, in my book. It’s narcissism (even, in its extreme, a kind of social schizophrenia). When did we become a culture unable to tell the difference between dishonesty and discretion?

I am a firm believer in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to social plans. This goes for dinner parties, cocktail parties, weddings and other special events, and, yes, out of town visits. We should always think about how what we are saying (or posting) might affect others. It doesn’t matter that you yourself might not care one way or the other if the roles were reversed and you were reading the post. Be aware of your audience.

Here, in my opinion, is the proper travel itinerary etiquette: If there is a good possibility someone you are not planning to see is going to find out you are visiting in her area, preempt--tell her you are coming but that you are zipping in and out and that you are mostly there for business, or for family obligation. You want to make it seem as though you are truly disappointed not to be seeing her. Otherwise, just don’t say anything about your trip. If you happen to run into her on the street while you are there (which is unlikely in a big city) you can tell her, “I knew I was not going to have time to see you this trip, so I didn’t call, but I hope we can arrange a visit soon!”

I myself went somewhere last weekend under just such a cloak of invisibility, to ensure I did not step on certain people’s feelings. It was not a secret, I simply did not broadcast it. I did not tweet or post my plans. I did not alert the media.

So where did I go? You can forget trying to find out. Go ahead and call me old-fashioned, but I did not leave any cyber-footprints.


This Restaurant Serves Grouse

Readers may remember how often I have expounded on the social benefits of living in this crowded, vibrant, melting (and mingling) pot of a city—where the possibility of conversations with strangers is always right at the tip of your ears, and even if you are too shy to talk to strangers, you can overhear the most interesting things and later serve them up as conversational tidbits to your friends and acquaintances.

But there is, of course, always the other side of the urban “proximity” coin; there are often interactions you really wish you didn’t have to witness, ones you wish you could block out. Loud, boring conversations between salesmen about numbers or statistics. Ugly relationship arguments. Parents being mean to their toddlers. People spouting racist or sexist opinions.

Or, as I experienced recently: rude customers abusing the people who are waiting on them.

In New York restaurants, it’s extremely difficult to ignore your fellow diners. Tables are often so close together you may as well be eating at the same table. It was for this reason that, one night last month, it became extremely hard to ignore the demanding, absolutely pissy diners sitting immediately to my left.
The irony was that, as my friend and I were settling into our seats, we were talking about how wonderful this particular restaurant was, and at almost that exact moment we became aware of a man at the next table berating the waitress.

“Miss, I have to tell you,” said the man, who had a pointy nose and wispy hair that pouffed out on top, “this is not medium-rare, this is medium. Take it away and bring me one that is prepared correctly.” And a little while later: “Waitress, please bring me another set of silverware; these are not clean. Also, I need some more bread, and another drink. And can you tell the bartender to use Tanqueray this time, like I asked? Whatever this was, it wasn’t Tanqueray. Don’t think I can’t tell the difference!”

The other man at this table was also fairly demanding, though at least he was polite. “Sorry, but can I have some more parmesan?” “Excuse me, I seemed to have dropped my napkin, can I have another?” “May I have some extra dressing?” It was something every few minutes.

The poor waitress was running back and forth to their table as if she were running a relay race and she was the whole team. We tried to ignore the unpleasantness. With all my powers of concentration, I looked over at my dinner companion, trying to block out the petty drama beside us, so we could enjoy our dinner (and each other) instead of focusing on the complainers beside us. But once we had become aware of them, it was hard not to listen. (How about a little negative energy with that roast duck?) Our attempts at tuning them out were to no avail.

Gradually, in order to try to compensate for the rude neighbors, we began to over-compliment our waitress. “Thank you so much,” I found myself gushing to her. “This risotto is the best I’ve ever had.”

“I’m going to come back to this wonderful place all the time,” my friend chirped in.

Of course, we were aware that the rude people next to us could overhear us as easily as we could overhear them. And I believe it made them meaner!

Hence the battle between praise and complaints began, much akin to the proverbial battle of good and evil. We could tell the waitress was grateful to us; we were the heavenly balm to the hellish job she had to endure three feet away from us.

In truth, at a certain point during the meal I really wanted my water glass refilled, but I felt so bad for the waitress that I could not bear to ask for this. Nevertheless we—quietly, subtly—began to get better service than the complainers, only because we were so comparatively nice. And so, this friendly, unspoken relationship with the waitress eventually began to substitute for the communion my friend and I weren’t having with each other. It became a different kind of social night, one where we had adopted a put-upon waitress. We felt that part of the reason we had come to this restaurant was to help her get through the night.

I’ve heard stories about what chefs do in the kitchen to the food of “problem” customers. One thing is for sure: I would not have wanted to eat from the plates of the two persnickety gentlemen sitting beside us.