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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Monday, March 29, 2010

Keep it down, will you?

And try not to break up in restaurants while you are at it

One of the things I enjoy most about eating out alone is the entertainment that is served up on the side, entirely free of charge. This service, which I like to call restaurant theatre, comes courtesy the other guests of the outlet and is guaranteed to liven up even the most boring meal of soup and salad.

On my last visit to my favourite café I asked to be seated in the small terrace outside to enjoy the last of the winter sunshine. A young couple sitting a table away fell silent as I walked in. In a minute or two, they resumed their conversation in hushed whispers. And then, as they became inured to my presence, their voices grew louder
and louder and tantalizing snatches of the conversation began drifting over to my table.

He: “You have no idea what people say behind you back and I have to sit and listen to it…(indistinct)…This is the last time we are having this conversation…I want to have nothing to do with you in that sense after this.”

She: “Do you know how much you are hurting me…(indistinct)…Please I am telling you to stop…(voice raised further)…Please stop this now!”

The conversation then went on to her “ingratitude”, his “insensitivity”, her “inability to sustain any relationship”, his “callous attitude to her needs” and so on.

By the time my pasta arrived I had given up all pretence of reading my book and was eavesdropping unabashedly. This was riveting stuff, better by far than the spy thriller I was in the middle of.

Sadly, it ended all too soon. He got quieter and quieter; she got louder and louder. And when her voice got high enough to attract the attention of the waiters hovering inside, he just got up and walked out.

Typical! Walk out when things get too rough and leave her to settle the bill.

As lovers’ tiffs go, though, this one was rather tame compared to some others I have, willy-nilly, been witness to. I have seen hot tears being shed, letters being shredded on the table, and on one historic occasion, even seen a teenage girl throw a glass of water all over her cheating (or so she said) boyfriend.

And while this is rather entertaining at a purely vicarious level, I can’t help but wonder why people get into tiffs in such public places. Okay, I’ve heard that old tale about how you should always break up in a restaurant so that the dumpee cannot get too upset with the dumper.

But judging by my recent lunch experiences, it doesn’t exactly work that way. People still get upset, cry, make a scene, scream, throw things – undeterred by the fact that they are playing to an audience.

So, why not play this out in private instead?

Part of the problem, of course, is that all of us have a somewhat unreasonable expectation of a degree of privacy in public. We don’t seem to realize that more often than not this privacy is completely illusory.

No matter where you are, so long as you are in public you are never completely alone – someone or the other is always in a position to overhear what you are saying.

That’s exactly why the waiting staff in five-star restaurants in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore or any other metro, is always the most well-informed. The movers and shakers of the city congregate here to wine and dine, inhibitions are lowered by good food, tongues loosened by alcohol, scandalous stories are exchanged, shameful secrets divulged – all within earshot of the waiters who are serving that table.

I’ve always suspected that some of these staffers must be on the payroll of the IB or R&AW, because the quality of the intelligence they can cull from such evenings is priceless. They know who is having an affair with whom; which two business associates have been cosying up to one another; who is in danger of being dropped from the Cabinet;
and so on.

The only people who could give the waiting staff a run for their money in the information stakes are the chauffeurs who drive the Rich and the Powerful around from one meeting to another. They know exactly who the boss is meeting, for how long and when. They can hear every conversation (albeit one-sided) they have on the mobile phone whether it is with the minister or the mistress. A man may not be a hero to his valet but he is certainly an open book to his driver.

Of course, the only reason why these people can access all this information is that most of us treat them as if they were invisible, non-persons who are only there to serve us and then melt away discreetly. So, we fail to acknowledge that they have ears that can
listen and brains that can file away information.

And it’s more of the same in other public places. Even on airplanes, people will start intimate conversations in the front seat, oblivious of the fact that those seated at the back can hear every word they are saying. They will discuss matters of state, the state of their marriages, and everything in between, blissfully unaware that they are sharing all this information with perfect strangers.

So what exactly is going on here? Have we lost spatial awareness? Do we no longer have a sense of appropriateness? Or are we in full-on confessional mode because of our obsessive over-sharing on social media?

Any ideas? Anyone?


Anand said...


Pretty nice article. Neatly written & with a good sense of humor.

I know you are on twitter, but didnt think your followers have the same spatial awareness. Given the crap that is posted on twitter, I would think your article is completely normal. Also, i've heard a saying "The best place for secrets is the most crowded place".

Guess people do take this saying pretty seriously.


Observer. said...

that's a real masterpiece...one can visualize the events unfold as one reads it.

Thanks for the upload.appreciate it.

Navin Sadarangani said...

Maybe it's simply because the ones who speak out there, want it to be so. They want people to hear them. Or they want some perceived assurance from the outside world that they are on the path of reasonability and not being absurd in their emotions / thoughts perhaps.

Seema Goswami said...

@Anand Thanks for the feedback! And I guess a crowded place would be best for secrets - so long as no one else was paying attention!

Seema Goswami said...

@Random You are very welcome! But seriously, Random? Surely you can come up with a better handle?!

Seema Goswami said...

@Navin Well, I guess that is one way of looking at it!

Observer. said...

@Seema, Yes Random seems like talking to a bot, so rechristened onto original self.

Anonymous said...


Why question a good trend? I would love to listen to such private conversations, but rarely get a chance. :( As you said, a live view of the human condition is way better than reading a book or watching a movie.

About privacy: if people around me in a plane or restaurant are strangers, then does it matter if they hear my "private" conversation. Heck, I may tell them my sob story willingly if they are willing to listen. :) And if it bothers them to over-hear me, they should get a first-class seat or dine at home.