By Mark Aldrich
A note from the publisher: Click here to vote for Meghan Jenkins to appear on a future cover of Maxim magazine! She made it through the first and second rounds of voting with your help; please vote each day. And now a column from Mark:
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I am a very private person, plus I am pretty committed to a co-dependent life with the entire human population it sometimes seems, so I probably waste more psychic energy and time in an effort to give other people their privacy than I spend on the care and maintenance of 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 an imminent over-share.
I could blame cell phones, blame Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, think some thoughts about the effect of self-help groups and therapy on the culture at large, but after I think about and then discard each of these deep considerations, I draw your attention to this conclusions: I do not care about your details, unless you are my dearest, most intimate friend(s). No: sometimes not even in that case. Even here, there may be things I do not really need to know. The details.
A few years ago, I resided with a housemate who taught me something about this. Ad-inadvertently, if that is 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 a woman and she still is a woman and I am a guy; she and I were completely platonic friends, and I was in my relationship with a girlfriend I adored, 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 started to fall 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 have left 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 will not give her (and his) 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 to inform me that … details … about her life and about her, you know, self … herverymost self … were about 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 walking 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 to research prices on noise-cancelling headphones. (They work, by the way.) Finally, I left and took an annoyed and thus not-at-all leisurely stroll around the apartment complex. (A disabled man, my most competent walk comes with the purposeful stride of the slightly irritated.)
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, since she was not. In my comic book brain, that sentence echoes forever and ever and ev—
This is most of what I find fascinates and disturbs me about the incident. We’ll call it “The … Details … Incident.” If a person is not uncomfortable with the fact I am about to overhear certain things (overhear? I was in the same room), why then should I be uncomfortable with the exposure to 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 my brain’s ceaseless pursuit of thoughts. 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.” It’s an “-itis,” because I feel a rash coming on when exposed to overshares.
If I had started to text a friend with a live play-by-play of my housemate’s true confessions to a third party—a mutual friend, say—my housemate would have been profoundly offended. As a matter of fact, when I suggested that this situation made for a funny anecdote and thus a possible essay, like, say, the one you have on your screen right now, she was offended and insisted that I write a disclaimer about her as a housemate: Ahem. She was a fine housemate.
Another anecdote: One day at the electronics retailer at which I once worked (it almost rhymed with “VideoTrack”) a woman entered. Her mouth started to direct words at us sales associates before she had even opened the door: “My cell phone froze! I can’t make a call or anything!” That panicky moment with which we have all found ourselves. 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. (Two streakers ran across the outfield at Shea Stadium one afternoon in the glorious 1970s and a reporter asked manager Yogi Berra if the streakers were men or women. “How would I know,” Yogi replied, “They wasn’t wearing any clothes.”)
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. I seemed to be more embarrassed for them than they were for themselves. So: 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 51-year-old man who has almost lived on this planet for a great many of those years and I know things. However, when a person carries him- or herself 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 anyway, I think I feel like I am in the “or not” in the phrase, “whether or not.” Being oblivious of me, in front of me is akin to a rejection of me even when one has blindly included me. When your right to privacy invades my need to not know, no one wins.
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Mark Aldrich is a journalist, award-winning humor columnist, and writer/performer with the Magnificent Glass Pelican audio theater improv group, now in its thirtieth season. His website is TheGadAboutTown.com.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.