01 July 2011

On Eavesdropping

I have a confession to make; I eavesdrop.
No, not the kind of eavesdropping where you press your ear up against closed doors or quietly sneak up behind someone who’s on the phone. Though I am an eavesdropper, I am a conscientious one, and I have standards for my eavesdropping: I only ever eavesdrop on total strangers whose conversations are loud enough for me to hear, and only for the noble purpose of amusing myself.
My family lives in a house that has a near-perfect design for prospective eavesdroppers. Its small size is combined with walls which seem constructed for the express purpose of allowing sound to pass through them. In short, with little difficulty, from anywhere in the house, you can hear nearly anything that is said in another room. My siblings have learned this fact, and have acted upon it by staging “private” conversations between two siblings about another sibling who they assume will be listening intently. These conversations are usually about such sensitive subjects as Christmas and birthday presents, and the statements made during these conversations are calculated to cause an emotional response in the sibling who “accidentally” overhears the discussion. For example:
“Isaac, tell me, tell me, what did you get MaryGrace for her birthday?”
“I didn’t get her anything! I’m not going to waste my money on buying presents for her!”
*tears on the part of MaryGrace*
Alternately, the conversation could go like this:
“Lizzy, what are you planning to get Isaac for Christmas?”
“Oh, I already got it for him. I asked Rachel to go online and order Smallville, Season 10. Wasn’t that a great idea?”
“Oh yeah, he’s going to love that!”
*glee on the part of Isaac, until Christmas day, when he realizes that Lizzy wasn’t telling the truth, and actually bought him a t-shirt*
As a disclaimer, to my knowledge, neither of the above two conversations has actually happened, yet. Similar conversations have happened, and the above two conversations are my fictional attempts to represent how we have exploited the eavesdropper-friendly design of our home.
However easy it is, I recommend that you never attempt to eavesdrop on conversations about you and what kind of presents your family is going to give you. There are two very good reasons not to perform this type of eavesdropping. One, unknown to you, those you intend to listen in on may be aware of your presence, and may even stage a conversation giving false information, like the conversations imagined above. Two, if you actually do succeed in getting real information, you then have to deal with the fact that faking surprise in a realistic manner on Christmas day is much harder than you might think. Perhaps you don’t believe me, but do you really want to risk disappointing Grandma?
Yes, I truly am against all practice of deliberate eavesdropping on friends and family who are trying to keep their conversations private. On the other hand, I believe it completely permissible to eavesdrop on the conversations of perfect strangers whose conversations are so loud that if you want to, you can easily distinguish fragments of conversation as they pass by you in the mall. This, I do often, and consider it a great exercise for the imagination. The game I usually play is to create a background story and a meaning to the scraps of conversation that I pick up all around me. For example, I might hear the following:
“Did you hear about Billy?”
“Yes! I couldn’t believe it at first, could you?”
Now, what can my mind do with that? The first story that pops into my head is that Billy is their mutual cousin’s dog, who was recently cast as the lead role in an upcoming Disney film. That really is exciting news! Or perhaps, Billy is a friend from college, who neither has seen in 12 years, but who recently got major plastic surgery. As you can see, there are all sorts of possible ways of interpreting that conversation fragment. The other activity that I occasionally enjoy while I eavesdrop is silently correcting the grammar of the sentences I overhear, or if they are grammatically correct, but not quite effective enough for my taste, I edit them, taking out certain words and replacing them with other vocabulary more pleasing to my ears. I do not recommend ever editing what others say out loud or to their face, as it is very rude to correct other people’s grammar when you have not been asked to, and you will not make many friends that way. Still, if you correct grammar and edit sentences silently, in your imagination, it becomes a harmless, non-offensive activity which is actually amusing for someone as fascinated by language as myself.
                I do know that eavesdropping is generally not considered a polite thing to do. Still, that hasn’t stopped me from persisting in my own particular brand of eavesdropping. I rationalize this activity to myself by claiming that I may get an idea for a story from a conversation fragment that I overhear. This argument is all the more forceful because I actually have written stories that were inspired by a sentence or two that I just happened to overhear.
Mrs. Bennett Has Class said...

I love "overhearing" conversations, especially in restaurants! Women can be soooooooo loud, can't they?