“Daddy, you workin’?” my two-year-old daughter asks throughout the day, as my husband saunters around the living room in a fugue state conducting back-to-back business calls, AirPods locked and loaded, eyes fixed to the middle distance.
Charlotte turned one a couple months after New York City entered pandemic lockdown, so for the majority of her life, her parents have been around. Work-life boundaries are so blurry that unless Dave removes his AirPods, which he rarely does during most daylight hours whether or not he’s on a call, she assumes he’s “doing da business”, as she calls it. When she wants to get his attention – like when he’s, say, talking passionately about robots who mow the lawns of commercial spaces and not reading her the book Yummy, Yucky – she’ll occasionally take his AirPods out of his ears, put them in her own, backwards, so she looks like she’s trying to commune with Little Green Men, then walk around the room saying: “Nice to do da business with you!”
It’s good comic relief, and a model of how to diffuse tension – far more charming than my tactic, which is to speak very loudly and tell him that if he uses the word “leverage” or “ideate” in my presence one more time, I’ll ideate a way to leverage him into another apartment.
As we head into yet another pandemic fall, with companies scaling back in-person work weeks and the future of office culture uncertain, I wanted to understand better both a) why it was so annoying to overhear his conversations, and b) what I could do to tune them out, so that I could continue my own remote work.
“We’re all multiple selves,” the couples therapist and psychologist Signe Simon tells me when I reach her on the phone. There’s work Dave, husband Dave, father Dave. “It can be very shocking to encounter a person you’re unfamiliar with, especially if we don’t like that version.”
So that’s part of the reason that hearing him geek out about robotic lawn mowers might make me judgmental, or anxious. It can cut another way, too, Simon adds. “Some people see their partner who’s usually quite passive in a romantic context suddenly be really confident on the phone – it’s like wait, why am I not getting this sexy, confident person at home?”
But there’s also an issue that arises from the premise itself: overhearing just one side of a conversation. When I speak to Veronica Galvan, a professor of psychology at the University of San Diego, she reminds me that mental multitasking really isn’t possible, particularly when it involves the auditory system; you can’t just close your ears the way you can your eyelids. In 2013, she released a study about cell phone use, which indicated that listening to one side of a conversation can be more distracting, annoying, and have a more consequential effect on memory than hearing both sides of a conversation going on around you. One explanation might be that additional attentional resources are needed to understand the unpredictability of a one-sided conversation. As a powerless bystander, you don’t know what’s coming next, and so your auditory networks perk up.
Her practical advice is either to drown Dave out with headphones or, if we’re going to be in close quarters, to find tasks that are less mentally intense, since cognitive psychology suggests multitasking is slightly easier if the two tasks are very different.
“Typing on a computer and having a conversation – both of those tasks are verbal,” she says. “Talking to someone on the phone and looking at a map – one task is verbal, and the other is spatial.” So if my verbal resources are, in effect, saturated by his conversation, I should do something less verbal in his presence. Which, I point out, is challenging given my line of work: writing down words to form sentences.
But even if my work weren’t largely verbal, Galvan posits there may be something specific to this period that is making it harder for all of us to tune others out. In our normal day-to-day lives, we’re in numerous different situations and locations. She mentions an article that argued that it was harder to make memories during the pandemic, perhaps because we’re all stuck in one location, with everything running together, and no specific interactions or events to delineate moments.
“Maybe these conversations stand out even more than pre-pandemic, because now our brains are saying, Aha! Finally there’s something different!” she says. “Everything has been happening in these four walls and here is something unusual, and I’m going to latch on to that.”
Her advice? Do anything that will break up the day – take a walk, do some stretching, cook a meal – to provide new context, which will help improve attention and memory (and minimize the post-break interruptions for poor Dave).
Why not, you may rightly point out, just ask Dave to confine himself to one place, out of earshot, and close the door, like 99.9% of other remote workers? When I broach this with him, he claims that his “state of flow” is better if he’s constantly moving forward, like a shark.
Instead of engage, I decide to take a tip from Galvan, and head out. I return to find Charlotte doing her Little Green Men outreach while Dave sits on the couch next to our older daughter, who’s haltingly reading a book to our newborn and giggling. Would I trade this moment, this version of Dave, for the ability to focus more easily on my own work? Fat chance.
Sophie Brickman is a contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Times and other publications, and the author of Baby, Unplugged: One Mother’s Search for Balance, Reason, and Sanity in the Digital Age