Listen Up Closely: Mastering the Fine Art of Really Being An Eavesdropper

In a world without eavesdropping, the female black-capped chickadee would not be unfaithful to her mate (see footnote for explanation)*. In a world without eavesdropping, Elizabeth Bennett would never have overheard Mr. Darcy dismissing her as “tolerable” but not “handsome to tempt” him and without that, Pride and Prejudice wouldn’t work.  By extension, we would not have Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. An endearingly uptight Colin Firth would never have earned a place in female heart sand Kiera Knightly would never have pouted her way through muddy English fields. In other words, a world without eavesdropping would be a really sad place.

Eavesdropping, etymologically, traces its origins to the 15th century. It comes from the Old English term “yfesdrype,” now spelled eavesdrop, the name for an architectural feature that allows rain to drip off the roof. An eavesdrop apparently acts like one of those string phones from a kid’s movies, conducting secret conversation to the person standing under the drip. Wikipedia throws in a reference to Henry VIII, which makes everything better. Generally, though, in modern usage, an eavesdropper is anyone who listens in on private conversations, with or without architectural help.

Mostly, eavesdropping gets a bad rap.  At one point, if you believe the Internets, eavesdroppers could be punished under ancient Anglo-Saxon law. An old adage goes that eavesdroppers seldom hear anything good of themselves. Eavesdropping is considered sneaky, dishonest and unethical. Today, a Google search of eavesdropping pulls up page after page of hits, many critical of government wiretaps in the post-9-11 world: eavesdropping in the age of electronic communication.

Eavesdropping doesn’t have to be sinister; it doesn’t have to be about Big Brother leering into our private lives. It can be a source of entertainment — harmless, cheap and a better source of comedy than the entire Comedy Central lineup added up. Not even Jon Stewart’s writers can match eavesdropping, because no comic could ever match the human race in its capacity for ridiculousness and hilarity.

Eavesdropped conversations can be funny for two reasons. The first kind is funny because the subjects involved that are so completely off-the-wall. Once a friend and I were eating at the ramen place in Diamond Jamboree when the four guys sitting next to us started talking about an Asian gang boss’s promise to give him Westminster and Garden Grove for his DJing career, or something like that.  The two of us didn’t pay too much attention to our kimchi ramen that day. I wonder if those guys noticed the unusual silence at the surrounding tables. Just a few weeks back, I was braving the Double Down when I overheard another gem. This time, another group of guys spent 30 minutes expounding with great gravity about World of Warcraft and Ulysses S. Grant and the 50-dollar bill. It didn’t make much sense, but was a lot of fun to listen to.

Most eavesdropped conversations don’t make it into the best of collections. They are mostly funny because they are so random. These bits and pieces, think, “he’s such a toolbox” or maybe just two girls giggling for no apparent reason, are entertaining because the listener has no idea about what the subject of the conversation is, no idea about what came before and what follows. It’s a reminder of just how much context matters, of how so much of communication has nothing to do with the words said and everything to do with gestures and background.

Eavesdropping provides me with the WTF moments that make every walk around Ring Road, every moment at a coffee shop, every moment of the day really a moment of potential laughter.

*The black-capped chickadee, like many other animals, uses information gathered through eavesdropping (listening or observing interactions between other animals) to make important decisions, including whom to mate with. Black-capped chickadees are monogamous, but biologists have found that one-third of the chicks in every nest are fathered by another male.

It turns out the female chickadee eavesdrops on her mates singing contests with other males. If she overhears him losing, she will seek better genes for her offspring by having the avian equivalent of an extramarital affair. So evolutionary lesson: eavesdrop for survival.