Eavesdropping it like it’s hot

Eavesdropping it like its hot

Lori Foley

I eavesdrop. A lot.

I know you’re not supposed to and you’re certainly not supposed to admit to it, but I’m ready to stand up for my hobby. Some people have stamp collecting, some people have astacology (studying and collecting crayfish – look it up if you don’t believe me); I listen to conversations I’m technically not a part of.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “”Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss other people.”” She may well have added that the truly petty mind listens to strangers talk about other people and then subjects still more people to the whole affair by writing a column about it.

However, I think my enjoyment of the overheard is defensible for several reasons. Before I get to them, let me first define what I mean by “”eavesdropping.”” I’m only talking about listening to conversations that occur in public. I’m definitely not setting up wiretaps or putting my ear up to closed doors. I do have standards, not to mention a desire to avoid arrest.

Even in public, if someone’s obviously attempting to be discreet, I won’t try to listen in. However, attempts at discretion – or even volume control – in public are about as common as, oh, I don’t know, unicorns.

So, for my first defense: Eavesdropping is free entertainment. Maybe you prefer the consistently witty banter of incredibly attractive, interesting people on sitcoms. I’ll take two old guys complaining about the weather. Why? Because you can overhear things that scriptwriters could probably never create, even under the influence of powerful drugs. I submit the following conversation, actually overheard on campus, as evidence:

Guy: So, how old are you?

Girl: 23 … I mean, 28.

Guy: (Confused stare.)

Girl: Sorry, I guess I just don’t view time as a linear thing. (Holds up coffee cup.) It’s like this cup. You know, round and … cyclical.


Guy: Um, this may seem unrelated, but have you ever done ‘shrooms?

Girl: Yeah, why?

However, I don’t want to paint an unrealistically rosy portrait of eavesdropping’s entertainment value. Sometimes it’s disturbing. Cell phone conversations tend to provide the most horrifying examples. Some people operate under the assumption that, because those around them can’t hear one half of the conversation, their own half is likewise magically inaudible. And so our fellow human beings stride around campus on mobile phones, having intensely awkward conversations about their irregular pap smears, at a volume level most appropriate for warning the elderly of an oncoming bus or cheering at a monster truck rally. Thanks, but I’ll pass.

Even though it’s potentially scarring, I’m still a firm believer in the beauty of the overheard. In fact – get ready for it – I’d say it affirms the universality of the human spirit. Eavesdropping was something I did passively up until last year, when I lived in France for a few months. When I first got there, one of the things most striking to me was the fact that if I didn’t focus really hard, I had absolutely no comprehension of ambient conversation.

After I’d been around for a couple of months, it was a different story. I could understand almost everything going on, and listening became kind of a game. Sometimes what I heard was entertaining, like the guy who watched me buy Nutella and proceeded to comment to his friend, in what he apparently thought was a whisper, that he didn’t think I should eat it, out of his concern for my figure.

But more often than not, it was pretty banal – just the type of conversations I’d overhear if I hadn’t left home. And, in a weird way, it was reassuring to think that all over the planet, junior high girls squeal over junior high boys, moms yell at their kids and old ladies cluck their tongues at the fashion choices of adolescents. I don’t want to get too tender here, but it was a pretty reminder of our interconnectedness as people.

And, frankly, I’m nosy. So, give the theater of the overheard a chance. You might be horrified or uninterested, but you might hear something truly incredible. It’s like playing the lottery, just less socially acceptable. Oh, and also: When you just can’t wait to gab on your cell phone about the newest development in your phlegm problem … please, do it softly, or at home. Thanks.

Lori Foley is senior majoring in French and English. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.