Sheepish and Ashamed

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

I recently attended a large celebration with members of my extended family. During the event, two older friends of the celebrant were discussing her personal life in great detail, at length, and at full volume. I imagine they didn’t think anyone could hear them dissect her marriage, the state of her psychotherapy, and her feelings about other family members, but they were mistaken. Their words made me very uncomfortable, and I struggled with whether or not to tell them to cut it out. After all, if my children and I could hear them, others surely could, too.

Ultimately, I said nothing and simply let them continue their gossip.

Should I have spoken up? These women are 25 years my senior, for whatever that’s worth. The idea of reprimanding them, however gently, didn’t feel right, perhaps because of their age.

Sincerely,
Sheepish and Ashamed

Dear Sheepish and Ashamed,

My very Midwestern family defies all stereotypes of the quiet Midwesterner. We are loud. We are loud both in that we talk a lot and that when we talk we do so with booming (some may, unkindly, call them deafening) voices.

The one place we do know to tone it down a notch is when we’re at our extremely Midwestern Midwestern lake cabin. Noise, we know, travels remarkably efficiently over water.

When we have guests at this cabin, and we’re out in the boat and they feel the need to remark upon the remarkable pastel pink-and-white clapboard cabin on our lake (it is at once hideous and fabulous, standing out as it does among the log cabins; someday someone will paint it a different, I predict neutral, color, and we will all mourn the pink cabin’s passing), we inevitably say, in hushed tones, “Did you know sound really travels over water? It seems impossible that they could hear us, but I assure you, they can.”

A similar remark from you in the situation you describe seems apt.

You go over to speak with the ladies in question quite directly and say, “I’m sure you don’t realize it, but the acoustics in this room are amazing. My kids and I can hear every word you’re saying. I’m afraid that everyone at the tables around us probably can too.”

The trick in such situations is to frame what you’re saying as a helpful bit of information. You are not, in any way, shape, or form, reprimanding your seniors (as you are rightly reluctant to do), you are letting them in on a piece of knowledge that they would almost certainly like to know. Their voices are carrying through the room in which they speak. Is it because they’ve become hard of hearing and thus shout when they speak? Perhaps. But that detail isn’t important.

What is important is that when you’re 25 years your senior and shouting to your fellow seatmates at table #12 about the bride or the birthday boy or the graduate, you’re going to be extremely grateful when someone younger than yourself gently and kindly lets you know that your private gossiping isn’t private at all.

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