In Defense of Eavesdropping

I can’t help myself.

If I’m waiting for an airplane, eating at a restaurant, walking out of a movie, setting up at a triathlon, I tend to listen in to other people’s conversations going on around me. Awhile ago, when eating out, my better half “caught me” smiling at someone else’s conversation and shot me her elementary teacher “disappointed in you” look. I suspect she would prefer it if I focused lovingly on her eyes all the time, waiting patiently for whenever whatever is communicated. 

But her disapproval is misguided because eavesdropping is a form of curiosity, a positive attribute. 

Admittedly, one’s curiosity in the form of eavesdropping can take publicly acceptable and unacceptable forms. I don’t sneak onto the phone as family members are taking calls, I don’t sneak into their email accounts, and I don’t move closer to you at the airport or in the restaurant so that I can hear your conversation. 

One reason I don’t do those things is I don’t have to. To generalize, relative to many other people around the world, Americans are loud, so a lot of times people consciously make their conversations public. I trust you’ve met Loud Cellphone Person once or twice. “I’M DOWN AT THE GATE! Pause. WHEAT! ONION! GREEN PEPPER! BUT NOT TOASTED!” I’m not as fond of eavesdropping on LCP because 1) the content is usually inane and 2) I don’t like having to imagine what LCP’s friend is contributing to the conversation. It’s like watching Serena hit the ball without Venus on the other side.

Listening to talk radio is a form of eavesdropping. Reading is a form of eavesdropping on other people in other places and other times. When we go to a theater, pay $10 to see a film, we sit down with a hundred other people and in essence say, “Let’s all eavesdrop together, shall we?” Why is listening to the radio, reading and watching film, all windows of sorts into other people’s lives, perfectly okay, but listening into a conversation in the chairs, booth, lobby, or bike rack next to me is not? I don’t think all the people on the radio, in print, and on film have given their implied consent.

When I listen in to what other people are saying, and by extension thinking, I’m expanding my perspective on the different ways people interpret their surrounding and make sense of the world. It’s a natural activity of a social being. 

All of us do it, in different forms and to different degrees.

I’m okay, you’re okay.

10 thoughts on “In Defense of Eavesdropping

  1. This is an interesting topic and this sort of curiosity is something every one of us is “guilty” of. I put it in quotes because I don’t necessarily think that it’s something someone should be guilty of. As you said, it’s a natural action to be curious, and you are entertaining your predisposed nature to want to learn more about the world and people around you.

    In response to your point about the radio, movies, and television, however, I’m not sure I agree. By going on the radio or film, one is absolutely giving implied consent. I would even go so far as to argue that they are doing so for the sole purpose of being “eavesdropped” upon. They are wanting the attention, and we as an American public are willing to supply said attention because we are a society driven to care about our fellow humans’ plights. The reason radio and film are as popular as they are is that many others react to them the same way you do: with natural human curiosity.

    So, I say eavesdrop. If people don’t want to be heard, they shouldn’t bring their conversations to a public forum.

  2. I constantly listen to conversations around me; sometimes if someone says something funny or interesting, I’ll look over at them and maybe smile or something. It never would occur to me that I’d be doing something that could be considered rude, since I figure in a public place people know that others often cannot help but hear what is said. Last time I was flying, I went to a spot in the airport I could plug in my computer and get on line because we were worried about flights (coming home from Italy last February). The woman next to me was talking her husband and suddenly was furious that someone had removed her as a facebook friend. She took it very personal, tried to figure out what she had done to upset this person, and was ready to remove the person from her cell phone memory. I fought the temptation to say “lighten up, facebook isn’t important, some people just decide to cut down to only a few close family and friends, or maybe she made a mistake.”

    In that case, I knew the best thing to do was keep working at my computer and pretend I didn’t hear her.

  3. Ron, eavesdropping is just part of social interaction and people should assume it is happening…

    I learned a lot from my first boss. I saw him publicly for the first time at a concert. I waved at him and his wife across a crowded lobby and went to watch the second part of the show with my new bride.

    There was a snafu, the music didn’t start, and the intermission lasted an hour. Expecting the show to begin, most people stayed seated. The man next to me starts complaining to his date about my boss (apparently, he’d spied him across the lobby, too). He accused him of the standard fare regarding state workers: doesn’t listen, isn’t innovative, acts arbitrarily, and had too much power. My boss had recently and firmly ended a pilot program (sold to a previous administration) that provided costly, poor service and ripped off the public. This man was central to that “effort” and was losing the lifestyle he’d become accustomed, too.

    From the spotty contributions he allowed his date, it was obvious they were not husband and wife, not a couple, and not going on a second date.

    Thanks for sparking an old memory, Michael

  4. Hey Ron.

    A few summers ago in London I spied out a tiny, round middle-aged woman dressed all in black, wearing short-shorts and knee-length high-heeled black boots. Her long blond ponytail floated behind her as she pranced and minced her way through the crowds, head held high. As I passed her on my right side going in the opposite direction I must admit I already knew I’d never forget the sight of this woman, supremely confident, tiny, and with one of the biggest bottoms I’d ever seen dangling on top of her short sturdy legs. I must have glanced briefly, nonchalantly, over my left shoulder when I caught the female side of a couple in their fifties, furtively grab her husband’s arm while whispering in his ear and pointing out this lady, a snicker on her face. While I was too far off to actually hear the exchange between this couple, it was obvious what their private moment was pivoting on: this somewhat unusual lady.

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