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Keeping conversation appropriate in public

October 30, 2011
By ANITA HANABURGH , For The Leader Herald

I listen like mad to any conversation taking place next to me just trying to hear why it is funny. Women's restrooms are especially great. I wash my hands twice waiting for people to come in and start talking.

- Lynda Barry

A while ago, I wrote an article about a friend over-hearing gossip about her in a restaurant. I wrote about the diner's apparent lack of awareness that others around them can hear their conversation. Many talkers have intimate conversations that are not intended for others. During the talking, the conversationalists believe they are having a private talk. But in public places, these conversations may be heard by others. In restaurants, tables are close, the walkways are narrow and the mood is often calm and quiet: A perfect formula for listening-in.

Recently a reader wrote, "While we were lunching at a local restaurant, we were not elated with the conversation of the diners at the neighboring table. The conversation was audible enough to hear everything. The woman discussed her kidney problems, her friend's stroke and the condition of a male acquaintance that had not been treated well after his heart surgery. The man, who spoke more softly but audibly, discussed his prostate. We could hear all of this and more as we sat, ate our lunch and tried to converse among ourselves."

These well-meaning talkers did not know they were being overheard. They did not know they were literally "turning-off" the appetite of the nearby diners. The nearby diners did not want to eavesdrop.

A man's character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation.

- Mark Twain

There may be many people who talk in public and do not know they are being overheard, but there also are those who talk freely in public and know darn well they are heard by others. They just don't care.

The same reader wrote, "As we sat in the dining area, we could hear a number of male voices in the bar, often using four letter words. [In another restaurant,] as we dined at a crowded restaurant we could hear, despite the various conversations at nearby tables, a few of the diners having a conversation about their sexual experiences. These restaurants were not dives; they were respectable establishments."

"So, "The same reader asked, "What is appropriate conversation at lunch or dinner out?"

Oh busboy. This is easy and hard to answer. My quick advice would be to say when you talk in a restaurant one should assume that it can be heard by the entire dining room. As you talk, expect that you can be heard by the neighboring tables, the passers-by and the wait staff. Therefore, good manners should be followed at all times whenever speaking out in public.

That being said, one might argue, "This is the only time I have to talk with my daughter" or "I'm concerned, I have to talk about such things." Some might even say, "It's a free country" or "If you don't like it then move" or "I'm not talking to you so don't listen."

Language is a funny thing. Our perception of language or what is said is evaluated by our involvement. It might be OK to talk of medical issues if your party is finished eating. Whereas overhearing it while eating, might not. What is correct conversation has to it has to do with the timing, the manner in which it is delivered, the volume of the words and, primarily, the people listening. What might be acceptable for some at some time might not be acceptable for others at another.

Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, wrote about Vice President Joe Biden and former Vice President Dick Cheney's use of the same swear word.

"The uses of the same expletive could not be more different. Biden's whispered utterance, unexpectedly picked up by a microphone, was a moment of intimacy, a private acknowledgment about the excitement of a momentous event. Cheney's utterance was an expression of anger that was meant to be heard," she wrote.

So, what is appropriate conversation?

If perception has to do with one's involvement in the conversation, then any conversation that is overheard is apt to be objectionable. So keep your voice down and be aware of your surroundings.

Whether overheard or talking in general even to your own party, I feel there are public conversation conventions that should be followed.

People should keep conversation decent, clean, and polite. It should be appropriate to the surroundings, lacking negative gossip and not grossly graphic. The talkers should maintain a polite decorum, quiet voice and calm manner so they don't bother others. Rules of etiquette would suggest staying away from public conversations about politics, religion, money and sex.

OK, I'll just be quiet!



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