I am a very private person, plus I am pretty committed to being co-dependent with the planet, so I probably waste more psychic energy and time trying to give other people their privacy than I spend on maintaining my own. Especially in those moments when it seems that people around me are oblivious to their horrible and immediate need to simply keep things to themselves. Or to warn me of imminent over-sharing.
I could blame cell phones, blame Facebook and Instagram, think some thoughts about the effect of self-help groups and therapy on the culture at large, but after thinking all those deep thoughts, I do not care about your details, unless you are my dearest, most intimate friend(s). No. Not even then. Even then, there are things I do not really need to know. The details.
A couple years ago, I lived with a housemate who taught me something about this. Ad-inadvertently, if that can be a thing. Accidentally a purposeful accident. She was in a phone conversation with an old boyfriend—just to be clear, my housemate at the time was and is a woman and I am a guy; she and I were completely platonic friends, and I was already in my relationship with Jen, whom I adore, and, further, my housemate was starting to re-enter the waters of dating—now, back to the anecdote: One night, my housemate was engaged in a phone conversation with an ex from her teen years, so decades of their lives apart were falling away with each minute and they began to affectionately reminisce about … details.
(See those three periods there? That group of dots is called an “ellipsis”; it represents the idea that I am leaving things out. The details. They are not your business, but they weren’t my business, either, which is why this column exists. Out of concern for her privacy, I am not going to give her details here. They are hers and if she wants to write about them anywhere and everywhere, she can.)
My housemate and I lived in a small apartment, however, and she gave me no heads-up, no message quickly scrawled, no hand gesture that … details … about her life and about her … self … were going to be spoken out loud for a half an hour, nor did she make any attempt to transform the conversation into a somewhat more private one by doing something like take herself and her phone into her bedroom. If it was not my apartment also, I would have left the premises in order to give her her privacy, which was a gift she would have returned unopened, apparently. I started pricing noise-cancelling headphones. (They work, by the way.) Finally, I did leave.
Afterwards, when I shared with her that this had been a conversation with … details … that I did not think were my business to know, she said she did not know why I was uncomfortable, if she was not. In my comic book brain, that sentence echoes forever and ever and ev–
This is most of what I find fascinating and a little disturbing about the incident. We’ll call it “The … Details … Incident.” If a person is not uncomfortable with me overhearing certain things, why should I be uncomfortable with hearing them? This is almost a question for philosophers. If … details … are (over)heard by a person whom you do not mind whether or not they hear them, but they do not want to hear them, are they heard?
This may be the incorrect answer philosophically, but yes. Yes, they are.
I may be the only person on the planet who suffers from this affliction, the need to not know. Perhaps this is one more example of me thinking too much. Because we live in an era in which we syndrome-ize so much of life, I’ll call it “Leave Me Alone Stress Disorder” or “Don’t Want to Know-itis,” because I feel a rash coming on when exposed to over-sharing.
(But if I had started typing or texting a live play-by-play of what I was hearing from my housemate to a third party—a mutual friend, say—my housemate would have been profoundly offended. As a matter of fact, when I suggested that the situation made for a funny anecdote and thus a possible blog post, she was offended and insisted that I write a disclaimer about her as a housemate. She was a fine housemate.)
One day at the electronics retailer at which I once worked (it almost rhymed with “VideoTrack”) a woman entered, talking at us sales associates before she had even opened the door. “My cell phone froze! I can’t make a call or anything!” She held the phone out in front of her like a child who had finished her Popsicle and had no idea what to do with the stick. I happened to be the associate nearest the door, so I spoke first and asked if the phone could be turned on. (My next book, “Deductions Made Difficult,” is due out next never.) I took it from her and powered it on and waited through the start-up jingle, which in moments like those is the longest few seconds in life.
When it finally powered on, I saw her personalized screen: a photo of a man’s … details.
I looked at her, said, “It powers on okay,” and saw her face turn red as she either saw the expression on my face or remembered what was on her home screen. She said a quick thank you, grabbed the phone from me, and started to speed walk out of the store. A man entered the store at that moment, and she greeted him on her way out with a nervous laugh and “We’re leaving,” and the two left together, both giggling.
I never learned either person’s name, but I learned something about the health of their relationship that I did not need to know. And I seemed to be more embarrassed for them than they were for themselves. What is with that?
I do not force my friends and acquaintances to engage in only PG-13 conversations with me, nor do I police the over-sharing phenomenon in restaurants or other public places when I hear … details … from other tables. Sometimes I joke about being a prude, but really it is just a joke. In my over-sensitivity to a personal desire that I always keep myself to myself, I do not make a show of insisting that others be more circumspect just for my sake.
One-on-one, I can be told anything in confidence and not blush or be surprised, as I am a 46-year-old man who has almost lived on this planet for a great many of those years. But when a person carries themselves with the confidence to not care whether or not I am in the close circle of friends with whom they share intimacies, so they share them, I think I feel the “or not” in the phrase, “whether or not.” Being oblivious of me, in front of me, is akin to rejecting me even when it is including me. When your right to privacy invades my need to not know, no one wins.
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This is an edited version of a column from almost a year ago. Names have not been changed because they were never included.
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