Once, on Boston’s MBTA, I was standing in the aisle watching a young girl reflected in the window as she talked to friends. I didn’t know I was staring until she looked directly at me and said,
“Yo, Sista – why don’t you take a pitcha?”
For writers, eavesdropping is fabulous grist for the mill:
- It develops our ears for the way people actually talk and tell stories.
- It tells us what’s bugging people and how they think – or don’t think. (Though in an election year this can get pretty depressing.)
- When we eavesdrop, we’re hearing humans in their natural habitat. We hear who and what they are, without pretense.
Fortunately, we and all the rest of the human race are hard wired to love it. How else explain “People” and reality TV?
Yet eavesdropping has always gotten mixed reviews.
Once a criminal offense
In 15th Century England, it was a criminal offense. The reason was that since nobody gave eavesdroppers permission to hear what was being said inside a private house, surreptitious listening was considered stealing.
The law applied whether eavesdroppers were standing under a house’s eaves, peeping through a keyhole, or hiding behind a tree.
Actually, eavesdroppers were both prosecuted and encouraged, since some snoopers were rewarded for evidence they could offer in cases such as those involving adultery.
Privacy a modern notion
The notion that what we say should remain private is relatively new.
Both early man and those living in today’s primitive societies developed elaborate ways to protect their privacy, sometimes by just turning their backs on their group. Others in the group cooperate by paying the same polite inattention we still practice – or not — in cubicles.
We learn young that it’s not polite to stare, so we listen in while looking the other way and pretending not to hear.
Having walls and doors in the way just feeds our appetite to know what’s going on inside.
We eavesdrop on conversations in crowds. We eavesdrop on cell phone conversations.
We eavesdrop when we listen to talk radio, except that there the callers want to be overheard. You could even say we’re eavesdropping when we watch “Downton Abbey” or read a good mystery.
Paparazzi are hired eavesdroppers, as are governmental and organizational spies.
Why and how to do it
So how should writers develop the fine art of eavesdropping? Here are a few guidelines:
- Be inconspicuous but alert. Listen for gems.
- Be polite – no staring.
- When you’re in Starbucks, bring a book and look engrossed, remembering to turn the pages.
- Wear headphones turned low.
- If you can manage it, hide, like the puppy above.
Be aware, though, that once you’ve overheard something you weren’t supposed to hear, your life may change. You’ll have to be very careful how, or if, you use the information.
Remember, you stole it.
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