The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 3 (Fall 2015)

Overheard and Overlooked

Wilfred M. McClay

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 3)

So there I was in New York on business, at the end of a wearying day of travel and meetings. I decided to grab a quick dinner at the fashionable bistro near my hotel. A lively but crowded place, with tables bunched together so closely that just getting situated would be a major effort, and once I was seated, there would be no question of getting up again for light and transient causes. New York seems to abound in such places, as well as in little dramas like the one that was about to enfold me.

At the next table were two women, I would guess in their late twenties or mid-thirties, sipping large glasses of white wine, utterly absorbed in conversation. So absorbed that they barely noticed me squeezing in next to them, and continued conversing at full blast even as I was reading the menu. And I soon noticed—how could I not?—that they were intently comparing notes about their respective boyfriends, and doing so with unsettling specificity. No intimate detail was too intimate to be related, analyzed, praised, disparaged, rated on a scale of 1 to 10, or otherwise disclosed, dissected, and dispatched with clinical precision. I’m sure the conversation was therapeutic for them, but for me it was almost unendurable, and there was no escape. Fortunately, I had brought a book with me, although I merely held it in front of my face as a prop, staring at it with frozen blankness like a subway rider at rush hour, occasionally turning a page for show, as I listened in table-locked captivity to their tales of adventure and deprivation in the jungles and deserts of male companionship.

This triumph of analytic candor went on for what felt like an eternity. I knew they weren’t trying to shock or provoke me; instead, they were working from the assumption that for all practical purposes I didn’t really exist. And all would have been well had I not made the mistake of glancing up from my book to take a peek at the woman facing me. She caught me looking—and registered, not embarrassment, but barely suppressed outrage that I appeared to have been listening to their (quite inescapable) conversation. And I was summarily judged an unspeakable creep for having done so. “Let’s go somewhere else, Mona,” she huffed, as she pulled out a twenty-dollar bill, slapped it on the table, and stormed away. I was incredulous. What more could I have done? Worn a blindfold and earplugs? Make like a potted plant?

“Wisdom, said William James / Is learning what to overlook. And I am wise / If that is wisdom.” So wrote Randall Jarrell in his poem “Next Day,” in words well worth taking to heart. But in actual practice, overlooking and overhearing seem increasingly beyond our control in a world in which basic etiquette is dead, most barriers are permeable, and countless unruly presences crowd around us, insisting on our attention. Much as I wanted to insulate myself from them, no one seated in my chair could have overlooked, or failed to overhear, Mona and her friend. Yet they apparently were offended to discover that their conversation was being overheard. In fact, weren’t Mona and friend the ones doing the masterful job of overlooking … my presence? Until, that is, the moment when they noticed me, and noticed me noticing. Perhaps it is not so easy to know what to overlook.

A great part of the allure of New York and other great metropoles is the freeing combination of intimacy and anonymity they offer, or appear to offer. In such places, you generally don’t need to think much about who might be overhearing you from the next table, since they don’t know you and you will never see them again. By contrast, at the Mayberry diner, or even Charlottesville’s College Inn, it is always wise to check out the people in the next booth, and take care not to be overheard by them, particularly if you live in the same town. But in the end, mere anonymity is insufficient. Being overheard by me was an offense to these two women, not because I knew them and sought to hear them, but because I was hearing things that were not meant for me—or perhaps more accurately, because I failed to pretend that I was not hearing things that were not meant for me. Such is the nature of conversation at its best, that it demands a limited cast of characters, and a commitment to a certain privacy and exclusivity, as preconditions for the integrity of its communion. To be overheard—or overlooked—violates conversation’s calling to serve as a hortus conclusus, a garden enclosed—the proper setting for a particular form of human flourishing.

We find a certain delight in having conversations in a restaurant, a simmer of excitement at conversing around others who are similarly conversing. Ideally, the company of others can amplify our pleasure in conversation without complicating it. We might even catch a snatch of what is being said at another table, and others may similarly overhear us, and that can be fun and enlivening, playfully transgressive, with no harm done. But all notions of conversational interplay change when the buffer zone between tables is eliminated, and all sense of enclosure or exclusivity is erased with it.

The late sociologist David Riesman consistently refused to be interviewed on television. When I asked him why, he replied that the conversational word was inherently contextual, and he always wanted to know to whom he was speaking, rather than wonder about how his words would be construed when overheard by random interlopers. Which is the burden of writing in any venue, since when one writes, one must think not only of one’s “ideal reader,” but of how one’s words might resonate in the minds of countless others, not only right now but at times in the indefinite future. And that, of course, marks a difference in the very nature of the enterprise. For a genuine conversation to take place, there must be an enclosure, real or imagined, a commonality that is presupposed as the condition for going forward. Being overheard amounts to an intrusion and a violation, a breach in the necessary walls, and an undermining of the necessary presuppositions.

We hear a lot of talk about how our country “needs to have a conversation about” this or that issue or condition. But this way of talking about “conversation” is unhelpful, and not only because it is so often a disingenuous way of nudging an orthodoxy into being. It is unhelpful because it perpetuates an egregious category error, precisely by missing the special character of conversation. Most of the communications to which we are subjected, particularly through our electronic media, are of precisely the opposite character. Overlooking and overhearing are their stock in trade, since they are required, by their very nature as the output of mass media, to be devoid of all delicacies of context. Advertising, journalism, popular culture, political campaigning and speechifying: For better or worse, these things serve a public purpose, and can foster public forms of memory and understanding we badly need. They are at their worst, though, when they try to be something they are not, and fall into the dishonesties of false personalization. The intimacy of free and full conversation, which some of us consider the crowning glory of a civilized society, is the last thing they are capable of fostering. For that, Mona, I’m afraid that you will indeed need to go someplace else.

—Wilfred M. McClay

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.3 (Fall 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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