On Eavesdropping, or Can You Hear Who You Are?

An essay by J. J. Wylie

J. J. writes: I am a 28-year-old "professional student" at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who works as a bean-counter and office-mule in a wholesale warehouse. My answer to the question of "What would you do if you won a million bucks" is "to write serious fiction until the money runs out."

Do you know what other people really think of you? I do. Actually, I just know what two particular people think of me, not that thin slice of the populace which is even aware that I exist (nor that even thinner slice which cares). And, speech not being a transcription of thought, all I really know is what has been said about me. Still, it's interesting.

It began as a classic set-up: I was at work when two of my fellow employees began a conversation just outside the open door of the room in which I sat. Well, it was less a room than a cubby-hole just off a larger conference-room, and I was where I was because I was reading the instruction manual of some software I had been ordered to install on the obsolete PC that my boss had seen fit to squirrel away in this outsized closet.

This manual had apparently been written by a graduate of the Phenobarbital School, where students learn to turn words into tranquilizers (their most famous alumni being James Michener). I kept yawning every line or so, actually having to shake my head to stay conscious. At one point, I even drooled right onto the page. If anyone had seen me sitting there, hunched over that hefty book and bobbing my head, they would have thought that I was headbanging a silent mantra over the lyrics of Led Zeppelin. (And if they had seen me drool, I would've had to piss into a cup to keep my job.)

Now, I had heard my two co-workers come into the conference-room, but I was too preoccupied to take much notice; I was busy enough just maintaining consciousness. I wanted to stress this point lest I am later accused of sneaking around like some Hearing Tom.

So it wasn't until one of them said, "So tell me what you think about JJ," that I awoke enough to tune in.

The novelist Don Delillo, in his first book, Americana, writes of what he calls "the universal third person," whom he says "we all want to be." What he's writing about is the imaginary perfection we all wish for, as expressed in cultural terms: the physical prowess of Michael Jordan, the hyper-kinetic wit of Robin Williams, the winsome beauty of Sandra Bullock, etcetera. "Advertising has discovered this," Delillo continues, and advertisers use it to suggest "that the dream of entering the third person singular might possibly be fulfilled."

Thus advertisements lead us to believe that we can become something separate from our workaday selves, something defined as good by how it is perceived by other people. We achieve perfection, it seems, by becoming a symbol for it.

Honestly, I'm not overly-worried about what other people think of me (or so I've learned to be through therapy), especially since I have spent years analyzing the effect I have on people and have long ago concluded that my case is hopeless: I have all the personal charisma of your average Vice-President (though Al Gore does do a better macarena).

But the situation at hand was this: I was being slowly tortured by a styleless tech-manual and the only way out of the cubicle in which I was trapped was to show myself to two people who were already discussing me. And I have at least a passing curiosity about how my "third person singular" matches with my first.

Besides, what would you have done? Well, that's just what I did: I sat there.

In order to protect the innocent, I won't reveal the names or descriptions of the two people whom I overheard, except to say that they were a man and a woman. And I quickly figured out that, though they were speaking about me, I was not the real impetus of their dialogue. What they were really interested in was each other, which made the request quoted above doubly complex, for it was the man who made it.

Workplace romance is tawdry enough, and nothing I could reveal here (like names) would broaden the horizons of such a subject any more than your average talk-show, except to say this: what I have often noticed about illicit liaisons is that public discussions of them carry an undercurrent of rivalry. It's as if the gossipers begrudgingly identify with their respective counterparts in the coupling-at-hand and thus feel somehow defeated for being left out.

In other words, as we dish the dirt, we feel somewhat akin to the writer Gore Vidal when he said, "Whenever I hear about the success of a friend, a little part of me dies." So, as we (consciously or not) feel that "So-and-so's getting some and I'm not, so I'm a loser," there's an element of revenge in gossip.

Thus, not only was I interested in eavesdropping on someone's candid assessment of me in order to get a better idea of my public persona, insignificant as it is (and not only was I wondering whether my male co-worker was going to run me down in order to build himself up via what my friends call the "Pulley Method of Self-Actualization"), I also wanted some dirt.

But what I heard, amidst all the knowing giggles and innuendos which characterize professional flirting, shocked me. What I heard about myself was so wildly exaggerated, so maliciously intended, and so factually untrue that all my qualms about eavesdropping were quickly overcome by my growing indignance.

It's tough learning how you really look in public. The public never gets it right. Celebrities are constantly bemoaning this, and the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges calls fame "a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst." Imagine how bad it can be for those of us who can't afford publicists.

An inaccurate public persona can even cause a person to retreat from the world. Thus, because he feels persecuted, Mark Fuhrman moves to Idaho. Thus the unnamed hero of Ralph Ellison's masterpiece begins his story by telling us, "I am an invisible man" whose public persona has been all but erased "because people refuse to see me."

Well, apparently I had been seen, although through very dirty lenses. In fact, public perception is nowhere near as close to being accurate enough to be used as a lens. Nor is it a mirror into which one can look at oneself. It's more like an inkblot that reveals more about whomever is interpreting it than whom it is that's being interpreted. What we're looking for is what we want, not what's actually there, and few of our desires are pure. Thus the very impulse that had made me listen for dirt on my eavesdropees had caused some dirt to get dished on me.

I'm a little different than the people I work with, and many of them react to this difference with derogatory speculation about who I am. I'm as guilty of doing this as anyone, but it's alarming to realize that I'm also a target of it. Finding out who people think you are is a little like finding out you're adopted: it calls your own conception of yourself into question. The aformentioned Delillo, in his novel,White Noise, has his narrator characterize himself thus: "I am the false character that follows the name around."

So, without going into a blow-by-blow rebuttal of the inaccuracies that were levelled at me, I want to conclude by addressing only the most answerable slanders:

First, I am not related to my boss. I attained my position in the company through merit and effort, not nepotism. Believe it or not, I work for a living.

Second, I don't live with my mother; nor are my living expenses paid through a parental trust fund. (Again, I work for a living.) At birth, the spoon in my mouth was plastic, not silver.

Third, I am not "so serious that it would kill me to smile." In fact, I've always thought of myself as rather witty, and I laugh a lot. Especially at myself.

Finally, my sexual preference and experience are my business. Suffice it to say that ANYONE'S conclusions about those aspects of my personality should be considered wrong by default. So, barring those of you who are close enough friends of mine, if you think I'm heterosexual you should reconsider. And if you think I'm homosexual, you should do the same.

All of this talk of public persona, gossip, and misperceptions brings to mind a line from Michael Ondaatje's novel, The English Patient. It is particularly appropriate, given my citations concerning Delillo's defining of publicly-perceived perfection: "Death means you are in the third person."

I prefer the first. I'd rather be me than not.

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