When You Can’t Help But Eavesdrop

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She's So Bright - When You Can't Help But Eavesdrop
“I think I can hear something!” (Vittorio Reggianini (1858-1938), Eavesdropping)

Last week my husband and I went out with an old friend to one of our favorite restaurants in New York City. It’s a cozy place, with intimate lighting and small tables along one side that fill the narrow shape of the eatery. About halfway through our dinner, in the midst of catching up, a couple sat down next to us at the table to my left – the woman nearly shoulder to shoulder with me. As soon as the two started talking, I was listening to their conversation over the one happening in front of me.

I quickly figured out that they were on a first date, that the guy basically had no social media presence, and the girl was heavily exaggerating what accomplishments she may have had. I couldn’t pull my ears back to our own conversation, and found myself rudely “mmhmm”-ing when necessary, as I delighted in hearing the juicy details of the woman’s obsession with dolling out relationship advice online. My eyes may have been staring into the orange tea-light in the middle of the four seater, but my ears were a few feet to my left, hanging on the brags that spilled from my neighbor’s mouth.

It was captivating, and frankly delicious, as I tried to work backwards from each tidbit to figure out what was true (definitely not her 300K Instagram followers) and what was a warning sign to anyone on a first date (“I get really into people’s relationship problems online”). There were too many exaggerations, too many blanket statements, that I couldn’t turn away. Each snippet left me with more questions than answers and I was so disappointed to have left the restaurant before I could hear how the date ended.

On the car ride home, I shared with my husband my interest in the adjacent conversation, only to find that he had been listening too! We compared notes on what we thought was happening on that date, coming to similar conclusions.

While people have a lot of things to say about eavesdroppers, I have always loved listening to a good conversation. I would never, say, listen to someone’s phone chats, but I would absolutely tune in to an argument two people were having in the street. I’m interested in people, fascinated by their interactions, and am rarely satisfied in my quest to know more about them. In fact, when I studied playwriting in college, we were advised to listen frequently to idle gossip in the cafeteria, so that it might make us better writers of dialogue.

Other times I’ve been the victim of eavesdropping. I know this because my lunch neighbor forgets to turn the page of a book after 40 minutes, or a woman at a café joins in as my friend and I recall hilarious stories from our childhood. I’ll be honest, it’s never bothered me. If you’re having an interesting conversation, someone listening along only confirms that it’s interesting. But in the case of this first date, it was so awkward and unscripted – clumsy human interaction at its best – that I couldn’t help but tune in to what unfolded. I guess some things are just worth listening to!

What are your thoughts on eavesdropping? Do you try to avoid it, or admit that sometimes you can’t help but listen?

And speaking of eavesdropping…this post just reminded me of the fantastic film The Lives of Other’s about a German agent who listens in on prominent citizens after WWII. Here’s Roger Ebert’s rave review and an old trailer here.

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