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.

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."

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?

"We're no longer a community where you worry about whether others are going to hear what you say," says Benet Davetian, director of the Civility Institute on Prince Edward Island. "With anonymity, people dispense with a lot of the civility rituals."

The only problem with indulging our illusions of anonymity is this: People who start as strangers might not become fast friends, but they can rapidly become liabilities. As when, for instance, at a Starbucks two blocks down the road, I see the barista's boyfriend. Flirting with another barista.

Overheard at a suburban Boston Starbucks, two tables away from the leather couch where a business owner – tall, big-bellied, booming – and his mild-mannered investment adviser talk, unconcerned about the other half-dozen customers. Adviser, quietly at first: She's a gabber either way. Gabber in the old world and gabber in the new. Gabbers get hurt. But she's also the only one who's been able to show any improvement in the bottom line in her department. Adviser: So send her to China. Owner: ....We've already said that's the direction we might go in. Adviser: ....If you want to fire her, OK. Or there's China.... Then you get her out from underneath your hair in the business, which will make everybody happy.

I wonder, as I listen to the litany of complaints about a woman who may, by the end of my Frappucino, be destined for Beijing, whether it's even legal to talk about that sort of thing in public. But more than that, I think, isn't it just – wrong?

"It seems to me the wrong is done to you, by bothering you," says Anna Post, of the Emily Post Institute, named after the alpha-woman of modern American etiquette and Anna Post's great-great-grandmother. "You're thinking about it, and it sounds like you don't like hearing that conversation. Making other people around you uncomfortable is not good etiquette."

The only other rule, it seems, is calculating risk. Never say anything in public you wouldn't want pinned on a bulletin board, Ms. Post advises. Business is a little more complicated: Unless you own the business, you shouldn't talk about it anywhere. Other than that, chatter on.

Sure, George Washington might be aghast to hear the things we now say around on another, but at some level the rules of civility are little more than a reflection of the times they attempt to constrain. And by those standards, according to Boston University political scientist James Schmidt, we're not doing badly.

"I'm a skeptic about the decline in civility. That society was full, first of all, of people routinely spitting, which we don't do anymore," says Professor Schmidt. "They smelled bad. They were drunk in public a lot more often. They were probably beating their children and wives to a greater extent than we do now."

Besides, he points out, inappropriate chatter is the point of cafes. The first coffee shops in England cropped up in the 17th century, in the wake of war and tumultuous royal politics, as a place where ordinary people could discuss politics – a topic none but the elite dared touch before. Public opinion was literally born out of conversations that everyone was shocked to hear in the open air.


What you'd have overheard – if not for a short woman shouting, in Russian, into her cellphone – at Peet's Coffee in Newton, Mass. when I interviewed Schmidt: So you're sitting in coffee shops for hours on end listening to people; you're going to print what they say and you're not telling them?

Maybe the coffee-bean grinding and iced-drink blending make people think I can't hear them. Maybe there's some sort of unspoken agreement: I won't protest your sidewalk cellphone conversation if it covers up the gossiping I'm doing. If a secret is shared in public but the decibel level of everyday existence drowns out its telling, maybe it's still a secret.

And if I heard it and pretend, for the sake of everyone, that I didn't, am I a hypocrite? As Miss Manners says, "Hypocrisy is a higher form of human behavior than eavesdropping."

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