April 22, 2005

working in a bathrooom stall

The plaza I go to at lunch sometimes is filled with people eating, talking, walking. People come and go such that over the course of an hour I may see two hundred or more. Although the crowd is mostly white office dwellers, it does have some diversity to it.

The plaza is filled with sound constantly. Trucks growl past on Second Street just a few yards away. Occasional Helicopters rumble high above, sounding like Harleys being swung on long ropes in and out of the buildings. The long, low fountains provide a constant hiss like a college football stadium heard from just outside. And the SBC building across the street hums and whines with what sounds like a thousand air conditioning units working at full capacity. It is not a quiet place. Over the din, only occasionally, you can hear other people's conversations--a barked laugh or a particular word pointed in your direction.

Everyone looks around constantly. Clearly, it is a place to observe people, yet it it also curiously private. Why, I asked myself, does this open-air plaza filled with people feel so much more private than my own cubicle back at the office, where perhaps a dozen people pass by each day?

Cubicles, I have always thought, are like bathroom stalls. They offer the illusion of privacy while exposing virtually everything about what you do. Even worse--unlike bathroom stalls, they rarely have doors and almost always announce who is inside. The tiniest sound travels right over the cube wall. Sound is omnidirectional as well, so everyone on every side hears what happens in your cube, just like everyone in the bathroom hears what happens in your stall.

The plaza, however, exposes people visually while shrouding their sounds. Since sight is unidirectional, you are not distracted by things outside your line of sight. You are not bothered by other people who may or may not be looking at you. And you can safely observe others until they catch you doing it. When they do, there is an equality because you have both been caught looking at each other. There is no resentment and little self-consiousness because you have a parity, and after all you've place yourself in a public location.

Sound is distracting. Sound comes from everywhere. Sight can be easily shut off or restricted. The plaza, I find, is a far more private location than my cubicle. Despite the presence of hundreds more people and the lack of any kind of walls.

Rather than trying to keep an office space silent, companies should provide a high level of white noise, an audio fog that will capture, muffle, strangle, and annihilate all those conversations you don't want to hear--or that you don't want others to hear.

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