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Jewish World Review August 20, 2001 / 1 Elul 5761

Evan Gahr

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Consumer Reports

For society's good, PLEASE learn this term: 'TMI': Too Much Info -- THE place is the large financial firm in New York City where I temped last year. It's 5:30 p.m. on a dreadfully hot summer day, and most of my colleagues are preparing to go home. But one employee is hunkered down with an important phone call.

For some 20 minutes, she makes her case to an apparently skeptical listener. What started off as a dispassionate cost-benefit analysis soon degenerates into a veritable shouting match. Is she asking her boss to give her a shot at a new account? Is she talking to a client who doesn't like her marketing ideas? Nope, it seems the woman is trying to convince her troubled teenage daughter to go on antidepressants. And if you're thinking that falls under the umbrella of too much information for the rest of us in the office, you should have heard the subsequent discussion about the girl's urinary tract infection.

Whatever happened to being discreet? Sure, everybody is complaining about the loud, obnoxious cell-phone calls that have become commonplace in restaurants and on commuter trains. A cell-phone user, however, is usually a stranger who maintains a certain amount of anonymity -- once the dinner or train ride is over, he won't be inflicting his personal woes on us ever again. No, the real indecent exposure is in the workplace, where everyone -- or at least everyone within earshot -- knows your name.

You would think that the widespread availability of e-mail and instant messaging, which makesilent communication so easy, would render such public chatter unnecessary. That's why it's so stunning; it almost has an exhibitionist quality. The kind of stuff that was once confined to the living room is now the background noise of the white-collar office. (Note to the geniuses who thought up the cubicle workstation without walls: Thanks for nothing.)

Don't listen, you say? Tune it out? I wish. Short of wearing those industrial-strength ear protectors (now that would be collegial, wouldn't it?), ignoring these jabberers is impossible. At previous jobs in D.C. and New York, I've heard everything from "baby talk" between a man and his girlfriend (I can hardly forget "sweetie's" queasy stomach) to one woman's detailed account of her pregnancy -- from literally, I kid you not, the moment of conception (her hubby returned from a business trip overwhelmed with desire . . . ) to the moment of delivery (it was her first birth and the baby was slow in coming).

In a country that claims to value privacy, why do so many office workers sound indistinguishable from Jerry Springer's guests the moment they pick up the phone? This is a question beyond my expertise, so I consulted an expert: Lewis Maltby,president of the National Workrights Institute in Princeton, N.J., which began as a project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Maltby says Americans have an ambivalent attitude toward privacy: They clearly resent government intrusion into personal matters (remember the outrage in some quarters when Clinton prosecutor Ken Starr tried to learn which books Monica had purchased at a local store?) but have accepted incursions in the workplace. Congress last enacted measures to protect workplace privacy in 1986; despite the advances in technological eavesdropping since then, there is "precious little support" for new workplace-privacy measures, Maltby laments. Employees generally take it for granted now that their e-mail can be monitored and Internet traffic logged, he said.

In some of the offices where I've worked, no one needs to go undercover to find out how often employees are making personal calls. They are letting it all hang out, openly. I think the technological revolution is partly to blame: With the boundary between office and home increasingly blurred -- thanks to telecommuting, cell phones and wireless devices that allow us to work 24/7 -- some folks seem to make no distinction between their private lives and their professional ones. Maltby suggested, however, that the line needs to be moved back. "Speaking more as an amateur psychologist than a civil rights lawyer," he said, "people are much more open today than they were 10 years ago. I'm a child of the '60s. I think of myself as an open guy. But if I had prostate problems I wouldn't go on Oprah, let alone talk about it in the office."

I'm sorry to say that prostate trouble is rather quaint compared to the travails I've learned about over the last decade. Generally, conversations fit into one of three categories. Here they are, from least annoying to most:

  • ROMANCE AND ITS DISCONTENTS I had the privilege once of working next to a woman who gave multi-tasking a whole new meaning. On one line, she would berate her boyfriend; then she would place him on hold and kvetch to her mother about the no-good lout on the other line. Then there are the chit-chatters who want everyone in the office to know that their significant others are on the line. Those are the ones who say "Oh, honey, I love you so much" loud enough for the entire company to hear. Whatever happened to whispering sweet nothings? Whatever happened to whispering?

  • CO-DEPENDENTS ARE US For a little more than a year, I worked side by side with an otherwise industrious guy who metamorphosed into Baby Boy -- as I dubbed him -- whenever he called his girlfriend. And during a typical workday, there were plenty of such moments. "Baby Boy" and "Baby Girl" were live-in lovers. He worked; she didn't. Thus, there were little treats like this at 10:30 a.m.: "Oh, sweetie, I hope I didn't wake you up. It's so early."

    Throughout the day, the two would jabber away in the baby talk they had developed; among other scintillating topics, I learned how they planned to sell (on eBay) their ticket stubs from an Elvis concert. Other times, Baby Boy would do his best to boost Baby Girl's sagging self-esteem. This seemed to be an all-consuming task. In one conversation, I even heard Baby Boy tell Baby Girl that he had instructed his mother to call him only at work so that he could devote all his time at home to Baby Girl.

    Silly Mom, I thought; how come she didn't she know that the office is the proper place for personal calls?

  • ALL IN THE FAMILY Of course, the only thing worse than baby talk is talk about real babies. At one job in D.C. some years back, a colleague returned to work after a maternity leave. Every day, she would get on the phone to home. We overheard all -- and I mean all -- the details. First, there were the daily diaper reports; our colleague would call her house and ask the nanny if baby had moved, so to speak. If yes, the "good news" was promptly conveyed to her husband, a White House staffer.

    As she yammered away on company time, Diaper Woman complained that her nannies were insufficiently productive. They refused to do "light housework," she said, while the baby slept. We all learned how several nannies quit; another was fired after she apparently got drunk on the way to work.

    One day, Diaper Woman decided she should hire a new nanny by placing a Help Wanted ad in the Washington Jewish Week newspaper. Talking as loudly as she would at a staff meeting, she told whoever was on the phone that she wanted to find a Jewish college girl to help out around the house.

    It was Passover time. It wasn't my business, of course, and I shouldn't have said anything, but I let her nonstop phone conversations get the better of me. I blurted out something to the effect of, "Why don't you say something like 'Now is your chance to understand how our people felt enslaved in Egypt?' "

    Most of the people around us laughed, but Diaper Woman was not amused. I had violated the workplace code of silence -- which dictates that you pretend, in the face of all other evidence, that you are utterly oblivious to what is being said aloud. My remark -- admittedly snide -- had the ironic effect of making me the object of attention. Another equally voluble colleague nicknamed me Eagle Ears Gahr.

Think of the logic here. By acknowledging the obvious -- that we all heard stuff that didn't belong in the office -- I was somehow guilty of invading her privacy. You would have thought that I had rifled her desk, like those clowns who broke into the office of Daniel Ellsberg's shrink back in the Nixon era.

Those were the days -- when you actually had to commit a crime to learn somebody else's business.

When not acting as JWR's Washington correspondent, Evan Gahr works as an adjunct scholar at the Washington-based Center for Equal Opportunity, where the walls are thick and his colleagues blessedly soft-spoken. To comment click here.


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© 2001, Evan Gahr