Thursday, September 23, 2010


Where is the boundary between eavesdropping and intrusion?

You are sitting at one of your favorite corners in your favorite coffee house.  Perhaps four feet away, a table is occupied by two women, sneaking up on middle age.  You have sat in this nook many times when the next table was occupied, some by individuals with interests and vocabulary at some remove from yours.  You were able to work away at whatever your purpose, only on occasion aware of a line of conversation that had slipped under the ropes and into your awareness.  In fact, one party to such a conversation in that same situation was now taking her au lait to two tables removed from you as you recalled a memorable line from her about her experiences with "beings on the other side, helping those of us who were finding it to transition into death."

The conversation today triggered in you a considerable atmosphere of eavesdropping.  You would describe the two with buzz words of your own, "club women."  Each had an enormous three-ring binder, luxuriant with press releases, diagrams of seating arrangements, agendas for past and forthcoming meetings.  Each spoke of financial streams, conversion strategies, learning directives, distancing techniques, and dialogue models.  You had the impression they each belonged to more than one organization.  Your eavesdropping brought home information that each was affluent enough to have residences in two states, preferring Santa Barbara but "having emotional roots in Colorado."

Although the emotional level of the conversation was a degree or two above inane, each spoke with significant hand gestures, as though swatting hundreds of invisible insects.  The one farthest from you habitually reached across her body with her right hand as if to smooth a wrinkled stocking on her right leg, which was draped across her left at the knee.  You had no interest in the content of the conversation; your notes and descriptions of it included buzz word phrases and descriptions of what appeared to you to be a manic display of energy.

When at length they left, they were replaced with two other women of about the same age and about relatively similar attractiveness, but their conversation and gestures were restrained enough so that you were completely undistracted, disinterested, back at your writing as though they did not exist.  All of which led you to consider the point where distraction by voice or content or gesture gives way to unabashed eavesdropping and what you termed in your notes taken on the spot the observation of the banal.

Which leads you further down the questioning line to the provocative one, do you consider eavesdropping on your characters?  Disclosure:  each of the two women in the first group reminded you after some consideration of women you dated, for a time while at the university, and after a long spell away from the university variously with the carnival or in Mexico, for a time toward your late twenties.  What spoken things invade your Teflon of concentration?  What conversations send forth the invitation to eavesdrop?  Back in the days when you were a happy if mediocre distance runner, your personal best time in a strenuous ten-kilometer course came when you found yourself behind two young women who chatted on a near-conversational level throughout the entire course, drawn in with an admittedly prurient tug that begin, as you remember it with, "Had he ever tried to do that with you before?"  Followed by an emphatic shake of a ponytailed head, followed by a "Did you enjoy it?" followed by an even more emphatic nodding of a ponytailed head, followed by a duet of giggles.  Such was your talent at the ten-kilometer run that you considered a time of forty-five minutes quite splendid.  As you finished this eavesdropping ten-k run, you were convinced there'd been a glitch in the electronic timing system.  How else could you have managed just a tad over thirty-nine minutes?

Eavesdropping:  what is overheard, how it is interpreted, what significance to be attached, and how trustworthy is the eavesdropper's interpretation?  Provocative questions for an early autumn day in 2010.


Storm Dweller said...

As one who is audially hypersensitive, eavesdropping is very difficult for me not to do. My co-workers at times complain that I talk to myself, what they don't realize is that I am trying to keep myself focused on my work, and to give them the privacy for the conversations they share that would b better suited to a coffee house than across the cubicle wall.

At times though, snippets of those conversations are quite provacative indeed.

Querulous Squirrel said...

Some people, like the first two you describe, take up all the airspace in a room, like a gas, and we are not the eavesdroppers but the intruded upon. A lot of people are like this with cell phones, talking louder than normal in a quiet place. I hate all these people. They make good characters, though.