Joys of Modern Life 28: Eavesdropping

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The Independent Culture
THE OTHER day I was in a pub having a chat with a friend. That was the idea, at least, except that I noticed a group of men at the bar. It was almost painful watching them communicate: all body language and no proper sentences. They kept moving around, picking up their pints, rearranging their elbows. They didn't talk so much as bark. Then, with a start, I realised that I should be having my own conversation. I must stop listening in!

I cannot help it: I love to eavesdrop. Nor am I alone. One of the first things infants do is to eavesdrop. To do it well you have to be invisible, and adults are pretty good at making kids that anyway. There is this myth that kids get bored listening to "grown-up talk", but I was never bored. Nor were my sisters, one of whom was amazingly indiscreet. It was not uncommon for her to say to my parents' friends things like "So-and-so says that you've got a really big nose!".

My eldest daughter was always a talented eavesdropper and she loves telling me about other people's conversations. Her latest was the bossy wife and hen-pecked husband on a train. "No, you can't have a cup of coffee, Harold! Too much caffeine! What, a Coke? Well, I guess that would be fine. Just this once. But no coffee!" I asked her to repeat it to me for this article and she was affronted: "I wasn't eavesdropping," she said, "I just accidentally overheard it while I was staring out the window."

But of course. My daughter said that she almost interrupted her couple to tell them the facts about Coca-Cola and caffeine, but in the end didn't. So she was eavesdropping, you see, because she didn't want them to know she had been listening. Eavesdropping is usually accompanied by guilt.

Perhaps this is why people get so worked up over mobile phones which are, let's face it, an eavesdropper's delight. What is it about a mobile that makes people think they are alone? Someone once told me it is impossible to have a proper fight on a mobile because, just when you get to the screaming bit, the other person pretends to be in a tunnel.

Trains are among the best places to eavesdrop, especially late at night. I also recommend theatre bars, queues and changing-rooms (the bra changing- rooms in M&S are the best). Then there are restaurants. Some restaurants now offer single women a "ladies' table", which is discreetly hidden away. I always decline because, when dining alone, it is best to be close to others. After all, you never know what you might accidentally hear while staring out the window.