Please Pass the Paranoia: On the Dangers of Being Overheard

06/16/2015 03:38 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

When having a private conversation in a public place--even a crowded New York City restaurant--you can never be too circumspect.

One evening, after a particularly stressful audition, an actress friend of mine named Katie decided to stop into Café Loup in Greenwich Village, to unwind a bit over a martini and some country pâté. After ordering, Katie took out her New Yorker and began to read when suddenly, amidst the ambient sound of the dinner hour bustle, she thought she heard her full name uttered--and in an oddly conversational tone, not as an address. It had come from the table next to her.

She hadn't been paying attention to these nearby diners. "But when you hear your full name spoken--and as you know, my last name is not a common one--it really gets your attention no matter how engrossing Malcolm Gladwell may be," she told me. Thinking it was someone she knew who had spotted her and was trying to be funny by casually dropping her name, Katie looked up pointedly and expectantly at the group, preparing to smile in recognition. She made eye contact with the person facing her. It was a woman she'd never seen before. At the table were another woman and a man, neither of whom she recognized. Katie looked back down at her magazine, thinking, Maybe I just imagined that, maybe I've got post-audition auditory dysfunction. But she kept listening. While she could not make out every word over the noise of the restaurant, she could tell the man was regaling his two dinner companions with a story about a friend of his who had expressed interest in a woman after seeing her online dating profile.

"Apparently from her photo this Katie ____ (here he used my friend's full name again!) has really huge bazongas," she heard the man say. "But Pat says her description made her sound kind of overly ambitious."

Embarrassed, Katie didn't know what to do. Should she get up and leave? Confront them and ask them to stop discussing her? In the end she stayed and finished her martini as quickly as possible, feeling confused and uncomfortable. She had no idea what photo the man could possibly be referring to--since the only pictures of herself she could remember posting were from the shoulders up--but she resolved to stay away from any suitor named Pat. To Katie's immense relief, the diners soon went on to other topics. But her much longed-for relaxing interlude was ruined.

We think because we live in a big city that the odds are slim to none that anyone we might be talking about will be within earshot. While people in a small town assume everyone knows everyone, and behave with corresponding discretion, we city-dwellers have this illusion of anonymity. We talk about the most personal things on a packed subway train, in the midst of crowded stores, buses, theaters, and restaurants. We offer up our intimate thoughts and feelings, and gossip about other people, completely ignoring the strangers present. Funnily enough, the more people there are, the more privacy we convince ourselves we have--when, mathematically speaking, a crowd actually increases the odds of someone knowing the person we are talking about. While it's true that a high level of crowd noise can create some privacy, it can also serve to make us more careless; invariably the din subsides at the very moment we are talking loudly about the illicit affair a colleague is having with her next door neighbor.

Also, in New York City, the connectivity of people exists with about three degrees of separation rather than six. People in the same fields tend to go to the same restaurants, parks and often even travel on the same subway lines.

It is for this reason that one editor I know uses code names for all the professional people in his life whenever he tells me about them over drinks. Super-paranoid about being overheard talking about people in his industry (he has a high-profile position in book publishing) he'll refer to his boss as "Red Balloon," his departmental nemesis as "Evil Kitty" and the head of the company as "Elephant." If anyone was actually listening to us during one of these discussions, it would sound more like a children's book plot than work gossip.

Just recently I was at Gennaro's restaurant on Amsterdam, talking to my friend Lisa about a mutual friend named Bob who was having a marital problem. It was 8:00pm and the restaurant was crowded. I leaned forward so as to speak directly into Lisa's ear, but not before craning my head around to the right and to the left to check out who might be at the tables beside and behind us. (Especially to see whether there were any singles. People sitting alone at a restaurant are always listening to conversations around them; they can't help it.) Lisa started laughing at me and shaking her head.

"Jesus, who do you think you are, Deep Throat? You think out of millions of people, Bob or one of his friends is going to be sitting at the table next to you?"

I refused to be embarrassed. "You just never know," I said.

And the thing is, you never do.

Of course, my mother would say the answer is to never gossip about anyone, ever. She is fond of quoting the old adage: "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."

My advice? If you don't have anything nice to say, say it in a whisper.