The original eavesdroppers sat beneath the eaves of people’s windows, usually in the spot where the water dripped. They would literally stand in the eaves’ drop. Later, eavesdrop, as a noun, would come to mean a small hole bored through a wall for the purpose of overhearing a conversation. Eavesdrop, the verb, was used for the act of snooping beneath windows, and such behavior labeled you an eavesdropper. Got to be common enough that eavesdropping was declared a crime.
It’s also impossible not to do.
When I was abroad, there was little opportunity for eavesdropping unless I learned the local language, which I didn’t, so it was easy to tune out other conversations. Life was quieter. I thought a lot less about what other people were talking about.
As soon as I landed on U.S. soil, though, the eavesdropping began.
People told me that when I returned to the States, I’d find it to be loud. After months of isolated pockets of English, being submerged in the language again would feel like drowning in dialogue. It would be communication overload.
They were right.
It felt like everyone was trying to talk to me at the same time. I was smothered by English. All of a sudden I knew what people were saying, and my mind went wild trying to sort through it all, like I was channel-surfing at light speed.
You can’t help but eavesdrop. If you’ve got ears, then you’re listening. And we don’t need to hide under windows to hear what people are saying. Our windows are airport security lines, coffee-shops, grocery stores, and street corners. We could stand anywhere public and overhear a dozen conversations at once. People are pretty open when they speak.
Most of what you hear is decontextualized and strange, but that’s half the fun.
You’ll hear people say, “There’s no reason not to take the butter.”
Or, “…like he’s never seen a giraffe before.”
Or, “…nothing better than peeing after holding it in for a long time.”
And you want to ask, “What the hell are you talking about?”
The most common form of eavesdropping we have now is Facebook. It takes the effort out of it. Plus, it takes the spontaneity out of it. Rather than hearing snippets of honest dialogue, we get status updates and arguments in text boxes. The idea is the same: we scroll down to read details of our friends (and friends of friends) lives just like we open our ears in a public place to listen to a piece of local culture. Our curiosity drives us.
Don’t be ashamed of your curiosity. Don’t quit eavesdropping.
In fact, eavesdropping is usually how we meet people. We hear a snippet of conversation, something we’re interested in or something we want to contribute to, and so we speak up. We join the conversation.
I will recommend, however, the occasional vacation from eavesdropping.
If not a trip to another country where you don’t know the language, than at least take a camping trip somewhere isolated. Remove your ears from the daily hum of communication and listen to the earth. Listen to your own thoughts. Listen to your heart beat and the wind howl and the crickets chirp.
Just know it’s going to be loud when you get back.