Hearing what you think, wondering what you heard

I had one of my weird Buffy the Vampire Slayer moments this week. This happens when ordinary life collides with pretend life and I seem to be the only one who notices. It is unsettling, like waking up and walking around only to wake up again and realize that the first waking was a dream.

It started with the weather this week, snow, ice, cold. While some people shoveled sidewalks or skidded on highways, I joined millions of displaced refugees stuck in an airport, peering through windows at empty gates and idling deicing trucks. Because it was a Wednesday and late in the afternoon, most of my cohorts were fellow business travelers. They were talking on cell phones. I was crocheting a scarf. We sat in various banks of black vinyl seats arranged in a pattern of horseshoes, back to back along the long hallway.

Of course I listened. I am a notorious eavesdropper and will reach for my notebook if the material is particularly interesting. Wednesday, the chat was loud but the content was lacking. The man across from me was talking to another team member who was about to go into a meeting with the boss. He attempted to reason and reassure the person on the other end of the phone who seemed to fear they were about to be fired. After the man across from me hung up, he covered his face with his hands. Apparently the person’s fears were right and this man knew it, though he had not let on. A woman was detailing the failure of her team to complete an assignment. She did not care how bad the economy, they needed to do whatever they could to save the project. Another man was recounting a visit with a client. Someone was barking orders about someone else’s contract. I heard random stock quotes mingled with estimates of how much money a law school graduate could earn in the first year.

None of these fragments held much narrative drama. With the exception of the man lying to his colleague about losing his job, the conversations were superficial and disjointed. It was like being surrounded by assembly instructions instead of a story, junk mail instead real correspondence. I was becoming annoyed by the din of so many boring voices, seemingly unaware of each other in the cacophony of minding their own business.

Then I thought of Buffy. There is an episode called “Earshot” in which Buffy is infected with demon blood during a battle. The blood is absorbed into her system and as a result, she develops the ability to hear people’s thoughts. At first, mind reading is fun. She answers questions in class by anticipating what her teacher expects, she allays her friends concerns before they can verbalize them and she is amused to realize that teenage boys really do think about sex incessantly. Eventually, she becomes overwhelmed by the banality, the heartache, the pessimism, the anger, the scream of unspoken longing behind the faces of her classmates. It is not just what she is hearing but how much and all at the same time. She can’t turn off the noise and the noise engulfs her. She loses her own mind. She is saved when her vampire boyfriend kills another demon and brews its heart into an antidote. Buffy is cured, but the idea of being bombarded by people’s thoughts stayed with me.

Back at the airport I wondered, what are these people thinking, talking in normal voices, inches or feet away from a woman with no earphones? Do they assume I am not listening? Is there a new protocol that requires us to tune out all cell phone conversations out of courtesy to the person talking? I am reminded of that crucial Piaget stage of development in which children believe that if they cover their eyes, no one can see them. Do these people think that because they cannot hear me, I cannot hear them? I am now privy to at least half of their thoughts, whether I want to or not, and it is curious to me that they don’t seem uncomfortable by this exposure.

Soon the noise, the dull recitation of business dealings, even the absurdity of cell phone mores faded. I drifted from airport mayhem to inner mayhem, listening to my own demons, which were also squawking on Wednesday. Like Buffy, when I am forced into a pseudo-voyeuristic position, I analyze, sort and judge everything I overhear. My thoughts often spiral into assuming everyone must listen the same way as I do, analyzing, sorting and judging what I say. I become preoccupied by what I imagine other people may hear. Preemptively I draw arbitrary lines between what may be construed as public or private disclosure. And afterwards, I am self-critical, reviewing each spoken thought, poking and prodding the carcass of conversations long forgotten.

There was also stormy weather in my work life this week. Fatigue got the best of me and weakened my usual filter. I shared aloud whatever thoughts popped into my head without much regard to audience: off the wall retorts, too much or too little information, an occasional outburst of frustration, leakages of sass and creakiness not appropriate for a person paid to model smooth communication. Unlike my airport friends in their invisible telephone booths, however, I looked back with incredulous anxiety, worried that my dialogue balloons still hover with Hindenburg portend. What has escaped from my head? It may be fine to blurt responses in front of strangers on a cell phone, but the rules seem different with those who know you know better. I thought of Buffy cowering under her pillow. There were a few times last week where I hoped I’d wake up a second time.

I need a demon antidote now and then for these kinds of emergencies, when I end up waiting hours for a delayed flight, lost in my own thoughts and the thoughts of others. This was the collision of real and pretend. I had to remind myself that most people don’t really listen with notebooks. Most don’t listen beyond the end of their sentences. Even careful listeners may assess and forgive aberrent lapses rather than collate them.

After a brief scrimmage with my insecurities, I returned to my fellow travelers. I heard the man across from me back on the phone yelling at someone about declining numbers in Seattle. I was envious of his impervious and impermanent volume.

13 responses to “Hearing what you think, wondering what you heard”

  1. Marleyfan says:

    Great title. If there were a whatsie for titles, you would win for sure. Your post describes exactly why I like airports so much, I love to listen and watch people, and never cease to be facinated. Have a good weekend.

  2. amare stoudemire says:

    Sounds a bit like Wings of Desire, doesn’t it?

    I’ve caught myself using my parent voice, in which I loudly say something obvious to my children that is as much (if not more) for those around me to hear as it is for my kid. This is sad but I do it to cover myself for wild behavior that I can clearly register but want others to realize that I’m at least aware of and working on.

    And I’ll take some TGW space to note the passing of Tim Bottoms yesterday. Everyone should see The Last Picture Show but I was quoting Apocalypse Now all afternoon in his honor. Never get out of the boat…unless you’re going to go all the way.

  3. j-man says:

    It seems to me that most people are bad listeners (greatwhatsiters excluded, of course), and that many of those bad listeners simply love to hear themselves talk, so it’s not surprising that they have no filters on what they say in public. And I think that many of us amplify what we just said to often cartoonish proportions, although as you said, I doubt that most people are keeping tabs on these things.
    Additionally, I love that you use a Buffy reference to illustrate your point.

  4. You mean Sam Bottoms, right? Tim is his brother and still (I think) alive. Tim was in The Last Picture Show, Sam was in Apocalypse Now. Unless I’m totally confused.

  5. …and indeed, I’m a bit confused. Sam had a minor role in The Last Picture Show, which his brother was the star of.

  6. Gary Lee Smith says:

    I was actually discussing this subject with a friend the other day…the art of examining ones thought. I find the subject fascinating, and I must say, this post was fantastic.

  7. Jane says:

    Thank you, once again, for writing about something I can relate to and expressing it better than I ever could have.

    It’s always fascinating how people can be so open and nonchalant about their personal conversations. I, too, am a conversation note-taker. Don’t people realize others are listening? Sheesh.

  8. Natasha says:

    I naturally have excellent hearing (probably due to my huge ears. I have actually never met anyone who has bigger ears than I do. They don’t stick out, so most people do not notice it unless I bring it up:) I can pick up on privet conversations on the other side of the room and whispers. I can even lip read. I early realized that privacy is a huge issue and people do not want me to hear what they are saying.

    You were talking about the people who were shouting things right in front of you, but maybe, consumed with their problems, they were unaware that you were listening. Maybe privacy exists only because others don’t want you to know embarrassing things about them including their shallow-mindedness; I still can respect that. Business is business though; it’s boring for most people. I find myself often giving instructions and making decisions on the phone simply because I cannot always be at my office, yet there is always some kind of a situation that needs to be immediately resolved. Especially, at the airport, there are people everywhere and it’s loud. It’s hard to be privet. On the other hand, if it was a quiet restaurant or an office and a loud person would discuss some personal juicy details, it should be considered rude.

    I suppose, it’s best to give everyone the benefit of the doubt about whether or not they are aware and consider the environment. Of course, if they know what they are doing, it should than be considered “impolitesse,” and bad manners.

  9. Natasha says:

    Private, sorry

  10. Kate the Great says:

    I look forward to your Friday posts, Pandora. You feel as thoughtful as I always want to be. Sometimes I achieve it in writing. You’ve mastered an artful turn of phrase that’s wonderfully tight.

  11. Missy says:

    You raise a good question, one which I, as an unrepentant eavesdropper with the bad habit of inappropriately inserting herself into others’ conversations should be thinking about:: are we supposed to tune out the conversations around us? conversations which have gotten so much more intense, so much less guarded since the cell phone became ubiquitous? I’ve read a lot about the demise of civilization as reflected in the loudness with which we speak on cell phones, but have never thought much about the roles and responsibilities they create for us as listeners/non-listeners. I dunno. I figure, you talk in my world, I’m going to not only listen, I’m going to engage, if not literally, then at least in my own mind.

  12. julie says:

    favorite eavesdrop moment.
    department store dressing room call
    “can I calll you back in an hour or so? I am just walking into an important meeting”
    as she zips her pants.

  13. Natasha says:

    It’s a good thing she was not walking into someplace else unzipping her pants, just the dressing room. Whew! See, Julie, that’s exactly why I could never understand the purposes of eavesdropping, just as much as I don’t understand the purposes of lying. Why do it?