20 Feb 2023

The Etiquette of Eavesdropping

There is nothing like eavesdropping to show you that the world outside your head is different from the world inside your head.”
Thornton Wilder

We all disdain this habit, condemning it as a violation of privacy or excessively nosey, but we all do it. It is very human to feel intense curiosity about the private lives of others, and if the opportunity arises it is extremely hard to resist listening in.

Eavesdropping is defined as ‘stealthily’ or ‘secretly’ listening to private conversations. There is a fine line between eavesdropping and snooping, which tends to involve a much more active seeking-out of private information, possibly with a negative end in mind, for example proving that a neighbour is in some way transgressing social or legal norms.

Many of us don’t even realise we are eavesdropping. As we go about our daily lives we are gifted with snatches of overheard conversation, in shops, bars, buses, trains, and if something about them fascinates us and we begin to tune in to what is being said, rather than dismissing it as background chatter, we have turned into eavesdroppers.

If you are transfixed by a conversation at the next table, avoid the obvious signs of eavesdropping: cocked head, frequent glances and the distracted inability to participate in your own conversation. Resist all urges to gate-crash the discussion – “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but hear…”. Your targets will, rightly, be outraged.

In the era of mobile phones, we have all been provided with an abundance of eavesdropping opportunities. Private conversations are going on all around us, sometimes at a very loud volume. Research has indicated that we find one-sided conversations, where we have to ‘supply’ the missing half of the dialogue, particularly distracting. We are all turned into sleuths, trying to anticipate responses, process half-understood information and visualise the person at the other end of the phone. While for some of us this detection game is infinitely diverting, many of us will resent being ‘forced’ to listen to half-understood revelations about strangers' lives.

Given that eavesdropping is a universal, although frequently denied, tendency, it is extremely surprising how careless and indiscreet people can be about private conversations. It is reasonable to assume that, if a potential eavesdropper is within earshot, they will be listening to what is being said. If you care about your privacy, it is always sensible to be aware of your environment and to assess whether you can talk confidentially – remember, crowded restaurants and cafés provide excellent listening opportunities, and you can safely assume that everyone will be listening to your conversation on the train or bus, whether they like it or not.

Be aware of the volume of your voice; if you tend to shout or talk loudly when you’re feeling animated, then you will be providing listening fodder for everyone who is sitting nearby. If you’re in a public place and you want to be discreet, lower your conversation to a low murmur or postpone your conversation to a more appropriate time and place – nobody will be offended by a quick text to say “I’m on the train and can’t talk right now. Will call you later”.

Be very wary of listening in to the conversation of friends and family. Listening behind closed doors or tuning in to half-heard snatches of conversation is not only obtrusive it is potentially extremely damaging. You may hear something that you were not meant to or access a juicy morsel of gossip or scandal that was not for your ears. Worst of all, you may hear something about yourself that you find upsetting or provoking. When you’re only hearing snatches of conversation it is easy to jump to the wrong conclusion – Shakespeare expounds on this theme in Othello, when his hero’s jealous rage and ultimate downfall is predicated on an act of eavesdropping.

It is only human to eavesdrop, so it is foolish to forget that you are surrounded by potential eavesdroppers if you seek to create boundaries between your public and private persona.


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