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.