At a restaurant the woman next to me was confessing to her dinner companion: “I told him I had Swine Flu. I mean, is he going to check? All he cares is that I don’t infect him. So now I’m having the vacation he wouldn’t give me.” I kept buttering my roll and did the correct thing: I pretended I had not overheard. But should this woman have been more conversationally cautious?
One of today’s social tendencies is to act as if people around us are not there, or that they can not hear us. Whether it is out of narcissism or necessity, we seem to be able to deny reality by mentally transforming public places into our very own private parlors. In the midst of crowded hair salons, buses, trains, planes, theaters, restaurants, and stores, we offer up our most intimate thoughts and feelings, completely ignoring the strangers present. The more people there are, the more privacy we convince ourselves we have. It’s true that a high level of ambient noise can create some privacy. But it can also serve to make us more careless; invariably the din subsides at the very moment we are talking loudly about our colleague’s illicit affair with the UPS man. Suddenly we realize with a shock that there are in fact many people within earshot. At this point there is usually an inclination to start talking in some kind of stilted code (“So, um, Mr. X said no one can find out that Mrs. R is at his house,”) which only makes potential eavesdroppers more interested than before.
Facebook and similar sites have provided a whole new arena for our indiscretions. Even though we know that there may be hundreds of people reading our posts (and seeing our often goofy photos), in this venue it is even easier for us to maintain the illusion that we are having a one-on-one exchange with a good friend or two. I guess this tunnel vision is inescapable, given our insatiable desire for communication and the crowded social settings in which we find ourselves. And while I have been known to decry this increase of “sharing” as an erosion of propriety and privacy, who knows? All these public revelations and the relaxing of our personal boundaries might actually bring us closer together.
On the other hand, as we all become more and more self-obsessed, the idea that anyone is paying attention to us could be the real illusion.