Sitting in the Willow Tea Room on Buchanan Street in Glasgow, a Charles Rennie Mackintosh design, my art history sensibilities were just going berserk. I am a huge fan of Mackintosh’s designs and his furniture and interior decorating for the tea rooms, with that iconic Glasgow essence he helped found, so being able to sit and have afternoon tea with two of my best friends was just a beautiful experience! We made our reservations and then arrived right on time, chose our teas and gorgeous cakes/tarts, and then enjoyed taking our time eating and chatting. If you’ve never had afternoon tea, here’s how it works (at least, in the Willow Tea Room in Glasgow): each person chooses a type of tea and one cake, which is then served alongside a little stand holding the cakes, delicate sandwiches, and scones with clotted cream and jam. It’s all ‘rather posh,’ as one of my friends put it, but it’s great fun and worth the money and time.
As we enjoyed each step of our afternoon tea, starting with the sandwiches, then the scones, then the cakes for dessert (I mean, pudding?), our conversation turned to reflecting on the friendship we had built between the three of us and how God was (and is) such big a part of everything we had done in Edinburgh thus far. We were three university students sitting in a semi-public tea room, where anyone present could overhear us if they wanted to tune in. Near the end of our conversation, an elderly woman who had been sitting by the window came over and told us she had overheard us and that it was so encouraging to see young folks like us talking so earnestly about God. It was a beautiful encouragement to us as well!
It was also a great reminder that public spaces are just that – public. Sound waves tend to ignore things like ‘socially acceptable boundaries’ between groups of people gathered in the same place pretending to be separate. We have this idea of public/private as a binary (as the slash would indicate), or even a gradient in which some sort of semi-public, where a certain amount of privacy is to be expected but not guaranteed, but the fact of the matter is that these distinctions are messy and rather fluid. We also often think of our conversations as ‘A-B only,’ as we used to say in middle school – just because you’re nearby or perfectly within earshot doesn’t mean it is okay for you to listen in – but just as we are spatial beings, so are our conversations.
If we have a ‘private’ conversation in a public place, does this mean it is public? Depending on your definition of public and private conversations, I suppose it could. Often however, we don’t mind having private discussions in public places because we are surrounded by strangers – anonymity is comforting. Even if they did hear, we think to ourselves, there is no harm done because they don’t know me. In that respect, private conversations can be overheard yet remain private, as if they are conducted in some sort of code that keeps the ‘public’ from understanding the full scope of what we’re saying.
All things considered, I love it when people hear conversations like the one we were having, and it makes me especially happy that this woman came and said something. Yes, the conversation was personal and rather private – but the woman didn’t know anyone in our conversation (including us), so it was really the essence of our words, not the specifics, that she appreciated. And I’m totally open to that!