People sometimes say you really see the mess around your house when you look at it through other people’s eyes. Like, if you’re having company and you’re cleaning up. You look around as if for the first time and see cobwebs dangling from almost everything, outnumbered only by the collection of stink bugs lying on their backs with legs up like they’ve been there a while. And the dirty fingerprints around the drawer pulls in the kitchen that give the appearance you came straight in from working in the garden without washing your hands before you made dinner. How had you missed those?
Well, I've come to realize the same “through others' eyes” test applies to our behavior as well as to our housekeeping standards.
On Friday I wanted to work in the garden (fully intending to wash my hands before starting dinner later). I normally keep my dirty overalls and muddy tennis shoes in the basement, but they weren’t there when I looked. My husband had cleaned up the basement recently so right away I was suspicious he’d done something with my gardening clothes. I called up the stairs to him. “Cecil, what did you do with my overalls and tennis shoes?” I could have started off by asking if he knew where they were but I went right to what had he done with them.
He came with some trepidation into the basement to help me look, but the clothes simply were not there. Finally Cecil admitted he “might have” thrown them away. I got agitated because these would not be the first of my things Cecil had taken it upon himself to discard. He was getting agitated because this would not be the first time I had gotten after him for such conduct.
So we started revving each other up. Cecil was giving me a good taste of passive aggression. I would have to admit to a certain escalating bitchiness on my part, laced nicely with sarcasm and snide remarks such as “I hope that filthy jacket you wear everyday doesn’t have itself an accident.” Suffice it to say neither of us was at our best in the exchange.
Then the phone rang in his pocket. For reasons that don’t matter here, it was my cell phone that Cecil had been carrying around. Instead of answering it he kept snotting off at me which, of course, infuriated me because I imagined he was causing me to miss a call of some urgency. Maybe God was trying to reach me to tell me where my muddy tennis shoes were.
“Will you please answer my phone?” I snapped. By the time he got the darn thing out of his pocket the caller had hung up. I dialed the number back and was greeted by a 911 operator.
“Is everything all right?” the woman wanted to know without even saying hello. “Yes it is,” I assured her.
“We received a 911 call from this number.”
I paused, trying to understand, and then realized Cecil must have made a pocket call down in the basement. The woman continued. “It sounded like you were looking for something.” She stopped short of asking if I’d found my shoes. OMG, I thought, she heard the whole friggin’ conversation. I cringed as I thought back to the less than attractive tone I’d lent my voice for emphasis. The various jabs at Cecil that had felt good at the time seemed mean when I considered them as they must have sounded to the operator. “So, there’s no emergency?” she confirmed. She probably wanted to ask “Did you find your damn shoes, lady?”
“No there’s no emergency.” I hoped I sounded convincing so she didn’t decide to send a patrol car to make sure one of us hadn’t taken a screw driver to the other. Naturally I was a tad hesitant to give her my name and address when she requested them but figured it would seem suspicious if I refused. So now she had a bitchy woman and a name to put with it. Great.
After I hung up I remembered that 911 calls are recorded. So somewhere in the call center my less than sweet display is now of record. I pictured the operator shaking her head and calling me a nag and playing the recording for her co-workers. Then I imagined the call somehow making its way to YouTube and wondered if 911 calls have privacy restrictions. Forget that I thought as I flashed on the countless calls I’ve seen replayed on television, the words scrolling along at the bottom of the screen to make sure everyone gets them. Next I’m thinking Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart or someone’s gonna get a hold of my tirade and have some fun with me.
Or maybe the operator will just go home and tell her husband who will repeat the story to his friend who happens to be a radio announcer or a columnist at the paper. The possibilities become endless; it’s only the permutations that vary. The one thing they would all have in common would be me crabbing at my husband when I thought no one else was listening.
Since the pocket call incident I have been more aware of the tone of my voice. I’ve caught myself slipping into accusation when simple inquiry would do. I’ve heard myself snap or quip or chide when I didn’t need to. I hadn’t stopped to consider how I sound from time to time when I indulge myself in the comfort of my primary relationship…the one people so often take for granted. As a divorce attorney you’d think it might have occurred to me before this, but I had not taken the time to sit up and notice myself.
That awareness came only after I learned someone else had overheard me. I’d felt justified and rightfully put out during the conversation, but when I listened through the operator’s ears I didn’t like what I heard.
So, my new rule—one I might recommend to others—is choose your words and your attitude carefully. Not because a 911 operator might be listening, but because no one likes a bitch, not even the bitch herself.