Boundaries in the Big City
“Hey, you have a really great apartment!” would ordinarily be a very nice thing to hear. But when this particular sentence is uttered by a shirtless stranger leaning out of a window directly across the airshaft from your apartment, that is a whole other thing.
This is what happened to me one day when I was washing my kitchen window; I had the window pane swiveled all the way inward and the screen all the way up, and consequently I was very visible. “You sure work late,” the man added, calling out across the 20 feet that separated our buildings and smiling in a discomfiting manner. “You must be the hardest-working woman in the city.” It took me a second to realize the implication—that he had been watching me. A lot. (I do tend to write rather late, but ew.)
However, besides the obvious Peeping Tom “ick” factor, there was another basic transgression involved here. This man had broken the unwritten law most New Yorkers live by; he had destroyed the illusion of privacy that is necessary for our peace of mind.
Since we are almost always surrounded by people, we erect make-believe walls and pretend we are not seeing and hearing all that we do. This is a social contract we have all more or less agreed to. For instance, it is certainly easy to see what the person sitting next to you on the subway is reading, but for the most part you do not comment on it, lest you break into the little “transit cocoon” he has created. People all around us are having personal conversations we pretend not to hear (and which they pretend not to know we can hear)—in lines, on buses, in restaurants, in stores. We have to play the game or the walls will come tumbling down. If every person chimed in to our conversations every time we were on the phone walking down the street, we would lose our minds.
Of course, often we feel drawn into strangers’ conversations when we see commonality—such as when we see someone carrying a program to a play we have just come from. I approve of engaging with strangers; but when it’s fairly obvious the person is trying to be private (for instance, if she is in her own home, thank you very much!) that is something that needs to be respected. When we are in public, it’s often more acceptable. There is a certain amount of “mingling” we expect when we are in a situation together with strangers.
It’s when you are not anonymous—and when you are trapped, as you are in the workplace—that this crossing of boundaries can be especially problematic.
People really need their boundaries at the office. I have a friend who works in a newly redesigned office space, where the emphasis of the layout is on openness. There are cubicles with low partitions in the center and glass offices along the walls. Not only can people sometimes see and hear what is going on inside the glass offices, but also voices throughout the floor seem to carry. So much so that one woman who works in a cubicle—who talks somewhat loudly on the phone—complained of co-workers stationed way over on the other side of the room repeatedly coming up to comment on, or offer help regarding, phone calls she had made. These co-workers did not say, “Sorry, but I could not help overhearing you needed this report”; they just said, “Here’s the info you need.” Now the woman feels that everyone is listening to every word she says, and it is affecting her work.
Cubicles have been the corporate norm for years. But many companies are now configuring their workspaces to be even more “open”—to offer better “flow” and more light. This seems to be the trend. In fact, most new designs—whether they are office innovations or website revamps—seem to reflect the increased connectivity of our modern world, and the decrease in privacy. This means we need our “fake” boundaries more than ever.
I almost always put my blinds down when it gets dark, but I certainly don’t want to be aware of hiding from a specific neighbor. I don’t want to know who is living across the airshaft. I don’t want to know about his life, I don’t want him to know about mine.
Togetherness is wonderful. But a feeling of privacy is essential. So you close your eyes and ears, and I’ll close mine.
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