I’ve sat me down in the library with my laptop to do some writing. I’ve got my headphones and some music playing loud to help me focus on the screen before me instead of all the people and other activity all around. It’s at this point that I’m reminded of one of my most embarrassing moments ever. Funny in retrospect; mortifying in the moment.
Ten years ago, or so, I worked in a small office located on a university campus. Just two of us worked there regularly, doing editorial work. The office itself was in two parts; I was in the back part, and my coworker was in the front, with a doorway in between. The door out into the hall, where students and professors regularly passed, was also in the front part.
I typically listened to music while working (as I do still). At that time, because I was using a university computer, I didn’t have my music collection loaded locally, and streaming wasn’t really a thing yet, so I used my iPod. To save battery life, I would plug the iPod into the PC, then use iTunes on the PC to access the music on the iPod, plugging my earbuds into the speaker jack on the external speakers. Worked great.
My coworker—who we’ll call Scarlett—and I had generally gotten along well, although at the time of this incident, things were getting a little strained. So one day, I’m at my desk, getting ready to “go under” to some music and get some work done. Got my headphones on, and was dialing up an appropriate musical selection.
In the other half of the office, Scarlett received a visitor—not uncommon; we both did—this time, another woman, a professor whose office was just down the hall. They said hi, and after a moment, they began whispering. I was the only other person around, so clearly they didn’t want me to overhear whatever they were talking about. And I didn’t particularly want to hear, either, in such a case.
They couldn’t see me, so they didn’t know I was already wearing my headphones, which might have alleviated the need for whispering. (Although, if they really wanted privacy, the most polite thing to do would have been simply to go somewhere else—such as to this other woman’s office, which was, as I said, just down the hall.)
Earbuds aren’t exactly noise-canceling headphones, so I could still hear the sound of whispers over the music that I now had playing. So I turned the music up a little more.
After a few minutes, I realized I was still hearing the whispers. Annoying! Now I’m beginning to wonder what they had to whisper about for so long. But I tried to simply focus on my work. So I turned the music up a little louder.
I could still hear them! And they went on. And on. I turned up the music again. I like loud music, truly I do, but not necessarily when I’m trying to work.
About that time, I heard them both leave the office. Maybe they had decided to find a more private place in which to continue after all. All was well again.
It was just a few minutes later that I looked down and noticed that, although I was wearing my headphones, they weren’t plugged in to anything. Normally, I plugged them in to the external speakers, which meant no sound came from those speakers, only from the headphones. Since the headphones weren’t plugged in, that meant the music I was hearing—the loud music—was coming from the speakers.
So, all the time I thought I was being polite by turning up the music so I wouldn’t hear Scarlett’s private conversation, she must have thought I was turning up the music to drive her and her friend out of the office. Yes, I felt pretty bad about that. And no, I never did explain what happened to her. Maybe someday she’ll read this and realize I had no malicious intent.
All I can say is I’m glad I’d chosen some classical that morning (Peer Gynt, if memory serves) instead of some kick-ass rock and roll.
Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins