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Cafe confessions: Do they think we can't hear?

Bellower at Table 1 gasses about his $13 million deal; mom in window seat whinges about overweight daughter; everyone else is rapt.

By Jina MooreContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 20, 2007

When George Washington was 16, he copied out 110 "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior" from a list the Jesuits had crafted in the 16th century. Many of the rules are irrelevant or obvious in our modern world, admonishing us not to spit into fires or run around half-naked. But one stands out: "Tell not your dreams but to your intimate friend."

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By this standard, I, as an unintentional eavesdropper, am the intimate friend of dozens of people I have never met. On my commute to work, on my walk from the office to lunch, in the cafe near my apartment, people dish. Girlfriends, husbands, husbands' girlfriends, contracts, health problems, fights. Public, it seems, is the new private.

In fact, very little of our public space sounds the same as it did even 20 years ago. Once upon a time – the memory of which splits Generation X from Y – people walked down the street in relative silence, sans cellphones. Today, we've lost our "inside" voices. We meet lawyers, arbitrate divorces, interview for jobs, and strategize about firing our subordinates in places full of witnesses with good hearing. What, Washington might ask, are we thinking?


Overheard at a suburban Boston Starbucks, the next table over:

Loud mother to a friend: I'm not a skinny minnie either, but ... she's bigger now than she's been in a long time.... But you know what? She's a nice, nice kid.

This is the sort of conversation that, a generation ago, would probably have happened at a kitchen table. If data were kept on the number of these conversations held in public, their annual rise might track Starbucks' stock prices. The chain is a sociological Petri dish for Bryant Simon, a Temple University professor whose book "Consuming Starbucks" comes out next spring. Music drowns out conversation, and round tables look too small for strangers to share with you. A living-room-away-from-home, right down to the cushy sofas, the coffee giant's retail stores are a perfect place, Mr. Simon says, to feel alone in public – and have incredibly candid, personal conversations.

Simon thinks the reasons for all this self-revelation in front of others can be boiled down to two things: fear and the suburbs.

"Starbucks broke at the height of people's retreat from public space, at the same time they were building gated communities," he says. "When they found themselves barricaded alone in their houses, they didn't particularly like it."

Bringing the private into public lessens that loneliness, Simon says. But it also lets us retreat from those awkward moments that happen only outside our homes – unfamiliar people, sometimes dressed in unfamiliar ways, meeting our eyes on the subway or standing too close in the grocery line. Talking intimately may be a way of eliminating discomfort from spaces we can't control. But not without a cost.

"The point of public space is ... that we get to know each other," Simon argues. We see different people in a different context and become tolerant of them."

I confess that I do my fair share of blabbing in public, and he makes a confession of his own: He is walking down the street and talking to me on his cellphone.


Overheard in a small, bustling Boston Starbucks (names changed): "Mike, hi, it's John Smith. On your question about the ... real estate and the $13 million? ... This might be too small to take on. But give me a call. My number is..."

What makes a guy like this feel no need to lower his bellowing voice – when I'm sitting right next to him – is what makes most people cavalier about their confessions, even when money isn't on the line: I have no idea who you are or, probably, who you're talking about. So it's not a big deal to a big bank investor if I hear details about million-dollar deals. (More touchy might be that I also hear the full names of his clients, but get only the investor's phone number, so it would be at least marginally challenging for me to, say, perpetrate fraud.)

And it's only mildly engaging to watch a barista on her break talk soothingly to her worried boyfriend, because I can't tell what he's worried about. He might have lost his job. He might have lost his mother. He might have lost his cellphone. And if I can't tell, what harm can I, a stranger, really do?