News & Politics » Essay

First Person: The Art of Eavesdropping

Usually you get chance fragments of dialogue that you can interpret any way you choose. It becomes an art, a form of expression.



I'm an eavesdropper, and I've been an eavesdropper all my life. But it wasn't until I was about 20 years old that I learned not to feel guilty about it. (That was about the same time I learned not to feel guilty about sex.)

I had to go to college to learn the techniques of guilt-free eavesdropping. It was there that I had a writing instructor who used to give us eavesdropping assignments. About halfway through the semester, when most of the students in his class were running out of ideas for three-page short stories, he advised us to find somebody who still had a telephone with a party line and to spend an hour or two listening in on other people's conversations. Besides giving us fresh material, he said, it would teach us to listen to the way people really talk. Before long students began bringing into class stories with the most wonderful, dialogue, describing in lurid detail complex techniques for applying makeup to make yourself look 20 years younger, bizarre aids for masturbation, do-it-yourself birth control gadgets, acne remedies, and love hexes.

As I recall, those students who turned in stories that took place entirely over the phone were given a C (for taking accurate dictation), while those who had the imagination to give their stories a different setting were given a B or better.

It was a great loss to writers in this country when party lines were eliminated. I suspect the death of the short story has less to do with the lack of a short-story market than it does with writers being deprived of good subject material after party lines were done away with.

Over the years, I've filled notebooks with conversations I've happened to overhear ("overhear" being the more respectable term for "eavesdrop"). I still dig them out and read them now and then. This conversation took place in the seats in front of me on a plane in January of 1980:

"My wife and I have written 27 books, the latest on angels."

"The California Angels?"

"No, guardian angels."

"You really believe in them?"

"As a matter of fact, I can tell you that my guardian angel is sitting on the wing of this plane at this very moment."

"Really? What does he look like?"

"Of course you can't see him, but I can tell you he's about eight feet tall and weighs at least 400 pounds."

"You know, I think I believe in guardian angels, too. I don't want to, but I do--because of certain things that have happened to me."

"Are your angels giants or dwarfs?"

"I think they're dwarfs. Have you seen them?"

"I've never seen dwarfs myself, but I know people who have."

After a neighbor who lived above me loaned his apartment to a couple for the weekend, I wrote down this conversation:

"It seems like all you do anymore is lay around and eat. That isn't the woman I married. You're getting fatter and fatter every day. I haven't seen you do the Jane Fonda workout in three months."

"I'm getting older. It's only natural that I put on weight."

"Twenty pounds in six months? I think I at least have a right to ask you to stay the same weight as when I married you."

"Well, you know, you've put on weight since we married, too."

Much of eavesdropping is simply good luck--being in the right place at the right time. When I was having my appendix taken out a few years ago, the anesthesiologist put the mask over my face, asked me to count backwards from a hundred, and then, assuming I was unconscious, said to the nurse next to him, "If we can finish this in a hurry, I still might get home in time to watch The Love Boat." That was such a stroke of good eavesdropping luck that when I regained consciousness, the first thing I asked for was my notebook.

Probably the most bizarre conversation I ever overheard came from a next-door neighbor, a Vietnam vet who lived alone. He was always very congenial when I talked with him, but at least once a day for about three months, I heard a variation of the following conversation coming from his house:

"Oh, God, not you again. . . . Why can't you please leave me alone? . . . Get the fuck out of my house. . . . Get out of my house or I'll kill you! . . . Shut up! . . . I killed you once and I'll kill you again if I have to!"

Except for the very fortunate eavesdropping experience, in which the eavesdropper has an opportunity to overhear an entire conversation, most eavesdropping consists of chance fragments of dialogue that can be interpreted just about any way the eavesdropper chooses. This is what I like best about eavesdropping. It becomes an entirely personal art form in which the objective is to reconstruct in your imagination a story to match the scraps of dialogue you've overheard. Obviously, this viewpoint--of the eavesdropper as artist--is more noble than the traditional viewpoint of the eavesdropper as a scoundrel and wag.

References to eavesdropping in English literature date back to at least the 15th century. The references are not kind, usually implying that the eavesdropper is deceitful, dishonorable, or even dangerous. The word itself refers to the line of water dripping from the eaves of a house--the eavesdrop. An eavesdropper, then, is someone who stands within the eavesdrop in order to listen to private conversations within the house. Apparently eavesdropping was the practice of spies before more sophisticated techniques for spying were developed.

What eavesdropping needs to gain public respectability, to elevate it above the realm of artists and spies, is some practical usefulness. It needs to become a science or, failing that, a pseudoscience. Not long ago I began wondering if, aside from the pure fun of eavesdropping, serious and aggressive eavesdropping could be used in public opinion polls. The trouble with traditional public opinion polls is that all questions are leading questions, in a way, which is why polls are a lousy way to find out what's on people's minds. A completely impartial pollster would not ask questions; he would simply listen to what people talked about when they thought nobody else was listening. In other words, he would eavesdrop.

I recently spent three days of intensive eavesdropping, trying to find out what people thought was important enough to talk about. I began at a downtown train station, which I assumed would have excellent eavesdropping possibilities. People about to leave on a trip are usually nervous--unless they make the trip daily, in which case they're bored. Nervousness and boredom are both conversation stimulants. Another advantage to a train station is the back-to-back benches, which allow an eavesdropper to get close enough to listen in on conversations without seeming to be intrusive. I was able to hear one businessman suggest to another, "We're going to be much more active here in the future. Why don't you and I get together and interface sometime soon?"

I assumed they were selling computer software, but now that I think about it, they could just as easily have been well-organized drug dealers. At any rate, I was thrilled to hear "interface" used in that context. I was hearing one of the catchwords of the 80s being used before it became passe.

I was intrigued by one woman who kept saying to her fussy two-year-old child, "If you don't shut up, I'm gonna bust you one, little girl." She said it with as much affection as anger, and she seemed to want everybody around her to hear it.

There were plenty of the last-minute "be-sure-to-water-the-plants-and-don't-forget-to-set-the-burglar-alarm" conversations, none of which was particularly notable. Overall, the train station was a disappointment--mostly because the acoustics are so poor.

I hung around a college phone booth for awhile, then followed a couple of panhandlers. I strolled along feeling twinges of my old eavesdropping guilt. When I listened to people, was I ripping them off, or is anything said in public part of the public domain?

I read once that in cultures in which people live in large family groups and small living spaces, it's possible for a couple to make love in the open, on the floor of the house, while the other members of the household behave as though they aren't seeing anything unusual. I suppose there is something admirable in that. But if it were strangers making love on their floor, would they still ignore them? And if a stranger on a bus is talking loudly enough for me to hear him, am I obligated not to listen?

I went into a deli and sat behind an older fellow who was alone and mumbling to himself: "Can you believe I'm eating in a dump like this? I never thought I'd get this low. Ten years ago, you'd never catch me in a place like this." I listened to him go on in that vein for a good 15 minutes. Nobody but me seemed to pay any attention to him.

I stopped at the library, where I'd heard some interesting conversations in the past. Many people go to libraries because they're bored and looking for diversion, and sooner or later talking becomes more interesting than reading. Also, people in libraries seem to think that since they're not supposed to be talking, other people aren't supposed to be listening. So they let their defenses down. But the best thing about eavesdropping in libraries is that it's permissible to invade another person's private space--just pretend to be looking for a book. The library is one of the few places in our culture where that's allowed.

On this particular day, though, there wasn't much happening at the library. The best I could come up with was one old fellow lamenting, "If I'd listened to my bookkeeper ten years ago, I'd be a rich man today"--the implication being, "I wouldn't be sitting in this dumpy library telling my problems to you."

Maybe it was still too early in the day, and people weren't bored enough to feel sociable yet.

At a bus depot, I overheard this little gem from two elderly ladies who were sharing a package of Twinkies: "I sure am glad to see you. You're the only other person I know who eats these things. I can't finish one by myself, and I hate to throw food away."

I had high hopes for the county courthouse, which usually has the hyperactive atmosphere of a day-care center for preschoolers. I rode the elevator a few times but heard nothing more exciting than discussions of the lunch menu at the cafeteria. I sat in the lobby for a while, then started strolling the halls. There were attorneys huddled with their clients on every floor, but most of that talk was pretty dull, too. By then the security guards were watching me pretty carefully and letting me know they were watching me pretty carefully. I didn't want to explain to them that I was just a harmless eavesdropper, so I left. I couldn't help thinking, though, that I'd give anything to spend a half hour next door to a room full of bored courthouse secretaries with lots of time on their hands.

As a general rule, I've found women's small talk is more interesting than men's. Maybe it just seems that way because I've been a man long enough to be bored with what they have to say. Men talk a lot about politics, money, and sports, and if they feel dangerous or cocky, they might brag a little about sex and drinking. Women talk a lot about family and friends, which are usually just as boring as politics and money. But women also seem to take more pleasure in what would be taboo in men's conversations: confiding, ridiculing, confessing. As more women enter the jobs where secrecy is fundamental to success, their small talk will probably become just as boring as men's.

At a bus stop just outside the courthouse, I heard two middle-aged women talking: "I told him he should take the money they gave him and buy three sets of clothes. When they're dirty, go to the laundromat. I doubt he'll listen to me, though. Never did."

By the end of my first day, I'd learned a few rules of serious eavesdropping. First, the people who talk the loudest almost always have the least to say and can be ignored. Second, everyone has his or her own unconscious perimeter, and if you trespass within it, the person will either stop talking or move away; the only way to find out how big someone's perimeter is, though, is to test it. Third, the perimeter can sometimes be safely trespassed with the use of decoys, such as earphones, sunglasses, and a newspaper you pretend to be reading. Also, people will allow you to approach quite close, and will continue talking, if you simply turn your back to them. And four, good eavesdropping is where you find it. There's no substitute for being in the right place at the right time.

On the morning of my second day of eavesdropping, I went to the airport. I was fortunate to have arrived on a foggy morning when the flights were delayed and the waiting rooms were full of bored people with time on their hands.

Two businessmen, both sweating profusely, one of whom had just completed a phone call: "The trouble with this job is that it's so subtle, if you make one mistake, you get shot from both sides."

Two 50-ish women, apparently housewives: "I don't worry as much when he's away as I used to. He's been pretty good for the last year or two. I think he's really trying. At least I like to think he is."

Four college girls scurrying about with an armload of food from the cafeteria while they look for a place to sit and eat: "This butter's so pale. It reminds me of the skin on my legs."

There were a number of Japanese businessmen holding conversations with their American counterparts, and I tried several times to sidle up to them. The American businessmen talked loudly and openly, while the Japanese always spoke in whispers and had the fiercest sense of privacy and the largest perimeters I've ever seen. If I moved within ten feet of one, he would quite consciously take his confidant by the arm and lead him away.

Maybe it was just because I was surrounded by so many bored people there at the airport, but I was impressed by how much of what was being said around me didn't need to be said. No information was exchanged. The listener learned nothing. Apparently most of the talking was simply a result of the speaker's need to talk.

Not long ago there was a widely reported study that showed that talking--even casual conversation--causes a rise in the talker's blood pressure, which is an indication of anxiety. I believe the only exception to this was talking to a pet. If talking causes anxiety (the fear of being misunderstood? of being rejected? of being ridiculed?), then why do we risk it? Is it possible that we prefer anxiety to boredom? Would the world be a more peaceful place if we didn't talk so much?

I moved on to the beach, where even under a cloudy sky a crowd was gathering. Two students drinking beer: "This haze should burn off by noon."

"Yeah, but we'll be shit-faced by then, so it won't matter."

I proceeded to the ballpark, where an afternoon game was under way.

Two women in their 20s, standing in line at the ticket booth: "I can't believe she married that guy. It's not that I don't like him. I mean, he can be very charming. It's just that he's like a little kid."

Young woman, seated in the upper deck, conversing with a male friend: "I don't see why she's so mad at me, anyway. If she hadn't left her door open, I wouldn't know about any of this in the first place."

Two secretaries leaving the stadium in a rush during the third inning: "Just wait, we'll get back to work, somebody'll smell mustard on our breath, and we'll be in big trouble."

Two grade school girls: "Are the umpires for our team or the other team?"

"Two of them are for our team, and two are for the other team. It's fair that way." Eavesdropping at a baseball game, I found, is best between about the second inning, when most fans have had enough beer to loosen their tongues, and the fifth inning, when most fans have had enough beer to be either surly, incoherent, or asleep.

On my final day of eavesdropping, I started at an employment office--a place where I've spent many happy hours of eavesdropping in the past. On this particular morning, most of the action was taking place in the area where the casual laborers, or "day laborers" as they're sometimes called, were waiting for work. They were all young men, mostly in their twenties and thirties:

"The best job I ever had was when we worked about an hour and a half for this guy, drank beer for the rest of the day, and got paid for eight."

"That's all these people in these fuckin' office buildings work, is about an hour an' a half a day."

"I tell ya, after that credit card stunt she pulled, she better stay in jail, 'cause if I ever find her, it'll be all over."

"Sammy says he's thinkin' about getting a room this weekend. Get off the street for Easter."

I thought the emergency room at a hospital would be interesting. But when I arrived, I found there was a TV tuned to the soaps and everybody was staring at it like a bunch of zombies. Two young girls, though, perhaps kindergarten age, were able to initiate a conversation: "My mommy can do anything except make a lot of money in a hurry."

After about an hour, I was ready to leave the emergency room, when I happened to hear a young man explaining his problem to the doctor: "I can't stop being nervous," he said.

The striking simplicity of that description made my day.

Cruising around, I decided to take the completely random approach to eavesdropping. When I passed a doughnut shop, I saw two young women sitting by the window, talking intently. I quickly pulled around back, went in, and bought a doughnut and a cup of coffee. Then I sat down with my back to the women while I pretended to read a newspaper I'd already read three times that day.

It was frustrating trying to eavesdrop on them because they spoke very rapidly, in slurred speech. What made it even more frustrating was that I knew they were talking about men, but I couldn't quite catch what the drift was. Finally, I put down the paper and looked outside. To my surprise, I found I could see one woman's reflection in the window. By listening carefully while I read her lips, I could just make out what she was saying: "I've learned one thing. Living with a guy is the same thing as being a slave. Next time, if I can't get married, I'll just live alone."

Serious eavesdropping is hard work, and by four o'clock that afternoon, I was exhausted. I knocked off early and went to the beach. As I passed the volleyball courts, I happened to overhear two vacationers, both of them still in braces, making each other's acquaintance: "So tell me, Laurie. How old are you, anyway--15?"

"Yeah, but I have an ID that says I'm 16."

"I thought I saw you at ____ last night."

"Uh-huh. Girls get in there no matter how old they are."

"What's your favorite drink?"

"Strawberry daiquiri."

"Yeah. That sounds like something a 15-year-old would drink."

As I passed the garbage cans, I heard one transient say to another, "You ever offer me a beer from the trash again, I'll beat the shit outta you."

I lay beside the lifeguard tower and pretended to be sleeping. Three kids, perhaps 14 years old, stopped nearby. One of them, talking in falsetto, said to another, "Oh, Sean, you big stud. Take me now or lose me forever!"

By that evening I was a compulsive eavesdropper. I found myself turning off the shower so I could listen to my neighbors yelling at their kids. I even chose the longest line at the hardware store because it had a livelier conversation going: "I spent $20,000 remodeling my living room and game room, and people still stand around in my kitchen and talk."

I suspect that eavesdropping is harder now than it was 30 years ago. People are talking as much as they ever did, of course, but people nowadays place a higher premium on privacy. Just two examples: Homes and apartments built in the 50s almost never had insulation installed between the bedroom walls, but it's done routinely now--more for privacy than for energy efficiency. And people who could easily carpool to work commute alone because that's their "private time."

On the other hand, the latest technology offers us eavesdropping opportunities that were unavailable just a few years ago. I understand, for example, that anyone with the right equipment can listen in on conversations on cellular telephones--the ultimate party line. For the truly serious eavesdropper, bugging equipment that can be monitored on any FM radio can be ordered through the mail. Portable earphones that can pick up a whisper at 100 yards are available for as little as $69.95. The future of eavesdropping, as of so many things, seems to be in electronics. Perhaps that's why Japanese businessmen, who are no doubt aware of this, are so difficult to eavesdrop on.

None of that surreptitious gadgetry interests me much though. With the aid of electronics, the eavesdropper almost becomes perverse--a beeping Tom, you might say. No, the nice thing about traditional eavesdropping--bus-stop eavesdropping--is that it's a simple, inexpensive form of entertainment that can be practiced wherever a conversation is taking place. No special equipment is required, and no special skills, other than imagination, are necessary. Maybe it'll never be respectable, but at least it's fun, and I really don't think it causes any harm.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

Add a comment