So Big Bro’s Not Listening — Everyone Else Is

Mirthology column, 1st run Wednesday 10 January 1990 in the Arkansas Democrat

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1990 Ben S. Pollock

Everybody at work knows my business so well that sometimes I’m the last to find it out. I mean, if privacy is a constitutional right, what’s left?

Today, for example, I called on a colleague in another department. The reason is not important here. He has a modern office — its walls stop half-way up and the doorway has no door.

Everything we said could be heard in the adjoining cubicles. I know this for a fact because when my friend went to get us coffee, I was glued to every word uttered on all sides.

Whispers carry surprisingly well, I found, unless you funnel your words to the other fellow’s ear with a cupped hand or rolled magazine. Nobody does that, because partitions provide a false complacency.

I’m now waiting at my home, the Bengalow, for my housemate Noah Vale, to arrive and advise. He’s great with this sort of problem.

Here he is, coming in at the right part of the essay, too.

“First, Ben, let’s take apart this emergency. Then the solution will be obvious. It only depends on how you split the components of the crisis.”

That’s how logical this guy is. By the way, Noah is my alter ego, former pen name and invisible confidante whom I left at college when I assumed I was grown up. Noah tracked me down after I got wise to the maturity game.

“I see three kinds of offices,” Noah began.

“The first is a full setup, with floor-to-ceiling walls and doors that latch. Despite the complete privacy possible, all sorts of problems come in. There’s no privacy if the door’s open, and, if closed, everyone outside will assume the worst.

“The second office is no office — just one big room. The air vibrates with creativity. Ideas and gossip flow freely, which is impossible in a series of formal offices. Open spaces are also noisy. The Big Room exploits the myth of democracy in business. The power hierarchy is subtle, shown only in desk size and who owns the corners.

“You know the third type, Ben. Modular. It fits in between. Those 5- to 6-foot walls are mounted on stands so they can be moved with a Big Room as needs change. Yet they rarely are repositioned. The phone jacks are at the right places, and the posters and bulletin boards are already hung — not to mention the carpet stains hidden by the desks.

“You know partitions do not block sound waves, so modular offices confer only status to their residents. I’m going to take a walk, Ben, and think about it.”

I went to sleep. The next morning I went straight to the Bengalow kitchen to make coffee. Floating above the dining table was a 4-foot-long, 12-inch-wide hollow snake. I yelled, “Noahhhhh!”

He skipped into the room, laughing. Morning people are disgusting.

“That’s no snake, Ben, that’s a solution. The base of your problem is conversation — in any type of office. In phone calls, eavesdroppers only hear your half of the dialogue, unless they bribe the switchboard operator. The written message is unrelated, too. You keep other people’s useless memos, and they keep your embarrassing ones.”

“But Noah, you’ve hung heating duct above my breakfast. What do you call it? A conversation piece? Where’d you go last night? Convenience stores don’t stock that,” I said.

“It wasn’t on the shelf. I had to go through the roof and the air conditioning. This is flexible duct, big wire rings in a tube of plastic-covered cloth or cloth-covered plastic. Thick. Insulated. Soundproof.

“The middle of the Talk Tube is suspended by a fixed length of cord. Its ends are hung on pulleys so each confreres can adjust them according to head height.”

“What about documents, and won’t you fog up your glasses in the tube?” I had him, I thought.

“Most talking isn’t confidential, Ben. You ‘tube’ only when needed, and you obviously don’t slide papers through it. Use your hands. Lastly, you disinfect the Talk Tube with a quick spray between appointments.”

“We haven’t come that far from tin cans and string, have we?” I said. “I think, however, I’d rather just ask clients to take a walk with me outside when secrets are to be passed.”

“What about the weather?” Noah asked.

He’s right. I never have anything important to say, anyway.

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