How to Deal with Accidental Eavesdropping

Office Etiquette

How to Deal with Accidental Eavesdropping

By Annette, contributing writer.

Dear Annette,

I am a cubicle dweller, as are most of my coworkers. Even though we try to keep our voices down, we can’t help overhearing one another’s personal calls. Should we just pretend we don’t? What if it’s about a subject, such as a medical problem, where one of us could offer help and information?

Hear and Now

Dear Hear and Now,

You’ve hit on one of the ways in which reality is far more convenient than television. On a television show, an inquisitive half-sibling, soon-to-be-ex-spouse, or henchperson has to listen at the keyhole of a thick wooden door or tap a telephone in order to hear the latest.

In real life, the employee without hearing impairment need only wait for the sounds of coworkers’ voices to waft over the top of a short, papery wall. Of course, the listener’s responsibilities are as stringent in real life as the cubicle is flimsy.

The most valuable information you can offer your coworkers in exchange for their dirty secrets is that you overhear snippets of their calls purely by accident and that anything that might float your way immediately slips your mind due to the press of business. As it should be, no? Sadly, compassion for your fellows should not lead you to make an exception to your policy (unless the issue is domestic violence, suicide, or similar).

How fabulous would you feel if you asked a colleague about a private matter, and he appeared to know almost every aspect of your business already? Even if his motives were the kindest, you’d come away feeling, alas, spied upon. At the very least, you’d wonder how many others knew. There is a very subtle difference between overhearing and eavesdropping, the same quality that makes a candid photographer different from a member of the paparazzi. (The latter are particularly noteworthy for their inability to photograph my dog Dickie from his good side, try as they might.)

If your problem were how best to announce that you had won the Pulitzer Prize, you might not care how widely your personal information had spread or how. If instead your difficulty were how to get rid of a persistent case of athlete’s foot, you probably would care very much. That’s why, in group settings, it is all the more important that each member sustain the illusion of privacy for the others.

So bring out those little-used social skills. Not compassion or kindness, but artifice bolstered by the inviting smile: my version of an old-fashioned value and one that works just as well at Spago as it does in the office.

Say you overhear Marguerite spending a great deal of time, day after day, trying to solve a problem at home. You happen to know just the after-school program, miracle spray, or home shopping service that will make this problem disappear. Instead of running over there, take a deep breath and stroll to Marguerite’s cubicle. Slowly. Greet Marguerite and see if she vents her frustration or gives you any indication she considers the problem up for public discussion. Marguerite must make the first move. If she does, draw her out. Present your suggestion as if you’d just thought of it, and accept praise for your fabulousness. If not, save your information for when she’s ready.

One last thought. You may hear many things it would be quite useful to banish from your mind.

Stay fabulous,

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