Eavesdropping and emotional noise

Lots of Teams and Zoom meetings this week. I do enjoy seeing other faces because I am rather isolated working at home. From my desk in the downtown office I was able to overhear activities and conversations and get a general feel for what is going on. And I never realized how valuable a source of information that is until I started working from home. My boss is pretty easy to work for and I have no major complaints — but he does not share much with me so I only know what is going on with our department from conversations overhead over the cubicle wall. Working from home, I am in the dark about a lot of things.

Outside of work, I also seem to rely on overhearing conversations. Whenever I chat with other people who live in my apartment building, I am stunned at how much they know about planned building maintenance and policy changes, long before I get an official announcement in the mail. Where do they get this stuff from? And they always seem to be on first-name terms with people who I have hardly ever met. Amazing! So when I notice two or more people having a lengthy discussion outside, I am often tempted to eavesdrop in case it is something I might need to know about.

When I read our local community blog, which actually serves as the local newspaper (it is operated by two professional journalists with decades of experience covering Seattle news in print, radio and TV media and is excellent as a news source), I do actually read the comment threads. I know some people consider that a waste of time. Just read the article and ignore the comments which are just full of idiotic remarks from people with nothing better to do. Well, I find it useful to get a barometer of the overall reaction to a piece of news. For example, whenever a new Covid-19 measure is implemented, I obviously need to know what is expected of me. But it is equally important for me to be able to assess the level of potential anger out there — so that I can perhaps avoid public places where confrontations might be expected.

Perhaps eavesdropping allows me to anticipate the level and nature of emotional noise that I will have to contend with. Emotional noise has been a big challenge during the pandemic. Even though things appear to have returned to normal operations in Seattle, albeit with an indoor-mask mandate, they do not feel normal. I was enjoying visiting coffee shops and bars for a few months — when people were able to sit outside and I had plenty of space inside. But now that the summer weather is gone, more people are sitting inside — and bars and restaurants are now required to check for proof of vaccination. So I am not going out to pubs anymore. Witnessing a confrontation between staff and customer would spoil the experience.

However, yesterday I found myself in a Starbucks where the emotional noise was surprisingly comfortable. I had ordered my latte and pastry via the mobile app and was prepared to take it somewhere else. But there were plenty of empty tables so I decided to stay. In one corner was a young woman working on a laptop (it looked like she was studying rather than casual browsing.) At the next table was another young woman with a little girl. The little girl was enjoying looking through a picture book. And closer to me was an elderly man who had brought a chunky hard-back book but spent about twenty minutes scrolling on his smartphone before putting it away and just looking out the window — which is what I was doing. There was a steady stream of customers coming in and going out. It reminded me of the energy I reliably encountered in coffee shops twenty years ago. It is nice to know that pockets of such energy can still emerge and survive for an hour or so — so I guess I will just enjoy it when I can find it!

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