The Eavesdropping Dossier: Week #9 of 52 Mini-Essays Project

On overheard conversations, narratorial ethics, and the pleasures of the bus

Topic Idea: Priti Joshi


October 4, 2011 · Vancouver, BC, Canada
Conversation just overheard in the venue where I’m watching the game: 
Patron: “I love coming in here—the music’s always great!”
Bartender: “Thanks!”
Patron: “Yep, really awesome.”
Bartender: “Yeah, they let us choose it ourselves.”
Patron: “What’s that? Sorry, I can’t hear you. I’m deaf.”

The Platonic form of the overheard conversation. It’s short and has a clear narrative structure; the roles are well-defined (Bartender and Patron—already familiar from countless jokes); there’s a surprise twist at the end that transforms the story into an anecdote; no one was harmed in the course of events. The Narrator (me) is an invisible observer not taking part in the action, which preserves the purity of the story. That said, a recording presence is required: someone to hear, appreciate, and pass on the conversation in order to render it funny, since presumably neither the Patron nor the Bartender would have found this exchange particularly amusing at the time. The NPC1 Narrator acts like a catalyst, leavening the heavy dough of misunderstanding into a fizzy confection of droll double-takeage. For a special bonus, the crux of the joke is reinforced by its genre, dusting the whole with a light sprinkling of irony: an overheard conversation about (not) hearing. 

Questions remain. Was the deaf Patron joking when he said he loved the music? Was he taking the piss out of the Bartender?2 Or perhaps he could hear loud music well enough but not conversations in a noisy bar? If so, then why did he engage the Bartender in conversation in the first place? Was he taking the piss out of the Bartender? Etc. For both Narrator and Reader, these unanswered questions are crucial to the humor of the anecdote; were the Patron to explain his situation more fully, or were the Bartender to ask follow-up questions, or were the Narrator to butt in and comment, the exchange would no longer be funny. We laugh because it’s mysterious, and the mystery persists regardless of the closed symmetry of the story’s structure.

July 25, 2011 · Vancouver, BC, Canada 
From the Overheard Conversations on Commercial Drive Files:
Pedestrian 1: “Something - something ... and the feeling he could attack me.” 
Pedestrian 2: “Yes, that’s the classic first manifestation of the Warrior Gene. It’s very triggering.”
Pedestrian 1: “Yes, of course. I just wish it didn’t feel like an assassination.”

Here the mystery comes from a different source. The overheard conversation is incomplete; crucial context is missing as the first part of the dialogue is lost to traffic noise and the mists of time. The Narrator has tragically failed to tune in quickly enough to hear the beginning of the story—and yet, it’s not a tragedy at all, since fuller context would have neutralized the humor. If we knew that Pedestrian 1 was in an abusive relationship with a man who was stalking or physically assaulting her, would we laugh at this exchange? We smile at the silly incongruity of the New Age thera-speak; we assume she will be safe enough. We trust she is someone we can pass on the street without having to stop, to inquire, to succor, to intervene. We allow ourselves to be carried along on the flowing urban tide to our next destination, imagining telling the story to the next person we meet.

February 20, 2017 · Louis Armstrong International Airport · New Orleans, LA 
Overheard from woman drinking white wine in a go cup while waiting to board an airplane: “Yeah, he was a real wolf. And he didn’t even bother with the sheep’s clothing.”

Similar, but different. This woman can take care of herself.

August 17, 2014 · Vancouver, BC, Canada
Overheard snippet of street conversation, one punker tween skateboard kid to another: “But what IS love, really? Do you know?”

Even less context, but none is necessary. Here the tender beauty of the story flows from the gnomic nature of the utterance. We can, if we like, project all kinds of qualities and experiences onto the young speaker—but honestly, the story is best if you let it remain slightly out of focus, if you hold it on your tongue (and mix a metaphor) for a moment and breathe in its diffuse aroma of adolescent sadness, loss, bitter confusion, and hope. 

To stand within the ‘eavesdrop’ of a house in order to listen to secrets; hence, to listen secretly to private conversation.

The dripping of water from the eaves of a house; the space of ground which is liable to receive the rainwater thrown off by the eaves of a building. Chiefly used with reference to the ancient custom or law which prohibited a proprietor from building at a less distance than two feet from the boundary of his land, lest he should injure his neighbour's land by ‘eavesdrop.’

I had always thought that “eavesdropping” came from the (old-timey? non-existent? certainly dangerous) practice of dangling from the eaves of a house near a window, perhaps from bent knees like a trapeze artist, in order to listen in on the conversations inside. While my whimsical etymology turns out not to be true, the real origin of the word makes clear that intentionality is crucial to its meaning. If you are sidling up so close to a house that you are within its eavesdrop, you know damn well and good what you’re doing. 

Contrast “eavesdropping” with “overhearing.” Overhearing is clearly involuntary, and can happen when you least expect it. One is not responsible for what one overhears, and therefore cannot be found guilty of a transgression. Of course there is a gray area in the law: what happens when you accidentally overhear a bit of conversation that is so juicy that you then tune in deliberately to hear more? It’s not your fault that you were sucked into this delicious drama; you would have to be superhuman to tear yourself away before finding out what happens next! Worse, given that the need for narrative closure is, in my humble opinion, a fundamental human drive, to turn away from an overheard conversation at the point of eavesdropping is the purview either of the Dalai Lama or a sociopath.

July 8, 2013
Just overheard on the 99 bus: “Can you imagine if there was an underground train from England to France?!” “Ohmigod that would be so cool!”

Here we have the opposite of the overheard snippet that ripens into humor in an anaerobic environment; in this case some contextual oxygen is required to render the conversation amusing. The listener must know that there is indeed an underground train running from England to France; that said train has been in existence for some time; that sophisticated world-traveler types and New York Times-reading aesthetes can be expected to know of its existence; and that the people having this conversation are therefore bumpkins and rubes. This one is risky. The Narrator is in real danger here of being uncharitable and even snobbish. However, I think every once in a while this kind of rich indulgence is acceptable, as long as you don’t make it a mainstay of your eavesdropping diet. Be sure to share only with fellow aesthetes and take a brisk, penitent constitutional afterwards.

A less caloric example of the genre, a kind of Snackwell version that requires only knowledge generally available to the masses:

April 7, 2017 · Bowen Island, BC, Canada
Just overheard. One Girl Guide to another: “You be Aaron Burr, I’ll be Alexander Hamilton.”
[Later: OMG they’re doing the whole show.]

Or the kind of conversation whose humor relies on deep, internalized context that we hope most people share:

September 20, 2011
Overheard cell conversation on bus: “So my birth mom told me that Pete—that’s my dad—has a bunch of other kids. So I’m going from only child to like four or five siblings overnight!” [pause] “WHAT? Dude, that’s disgusting! Even if some of them are girls, I’m sure they’re, like, really young!”

We could pause over this one for a while, if we wanted to. The phone conversationalist is adorably excited to learn he has a raft of new siblings (almost as heady as the dream where you discover an additional wing to your house). We assume (hope) his interlocutor was joking about his friend using this discovery as a dating opportunity. And yet.... If there’s one thing more hilarious than pedophilia, it’s incest! 

More wholesome and nourishing are the conversations that make you simply love the person speaking:

July 11, 2013
Just overheard in lingerie department: “I’ve decided it’s easier to lose weight than to try to fit into this shapewear.”

You, gorgeous, witty, zaftig woman who I hope has learned to live happily sans both diets and restrictive boning—I want to be your lifelong friend.

Finally we come to the category of overheard conversations that require an Interventionist Narrator to turn them into jokes. This is the riskiest kind of eavesdropping of all, for your recording presence now becomes a Character, actively shaping readerly interpretation by explaining or commenting on the action. The nineteenth-century British novel is (in)famous for this kind of thing: its nosy, chatty narrators regularly comment on the action and tell the reader what to think about it.3 These narratorial voices are sometimes wry, sometimes sentimental, sometimes moralizing. But they are very much engaged in the project of making sure you read their novel the way they want it to be read.

January 10, 2016
Overheard getting off the plane in Vancouver: “Wow! Already dark at 5:30?” Oh you poor sweet innocent fool.

This is funny (if it’s funny! I mean, who am I to say? I wrote it) only because of the Narrator’s sardonic comment, which forces the reader to stop and consider just how desperately early it gets dark in Vancouver in January. Funny to think of this sap’s unpleasant discovery the next day, around 3:00 p.m.! Implied but not stated: the Narrator’s own desperation, ongoing Seasonal Affective Disorder,4 and heavy reliance on alcohol during the winter months.

March 25, 2014 
Just overheard on the bus:
“Is your scarf American Apparel?”
“No, it’s Lululemon.”
...
[Me, to myself:] “Was your scarf advertised with pornographic images of seemingly underaged girls?”
“No, it was produced using sweatshop labor.”

The Narrator not only comments, but ironically “translates” the entire conversation for the benefit of the reader. Tricky, tricky. Typography here is crucial. It’s difficult to imagine performing this anecdote aloud.

March 23, 2019
Overheard at breakfast place in hotel lobby: “I’m an empath.” I feel like there are no circumstances in which this phrase is appropriate.
Comment from friend on Facebook: No true empath would subject another sentient being to this kind of self-involved conversation over breakfast.

Double commentary! The Narrator provides the interpretive gloss, and the Reader contributes marginalia that pushes the joke even further. (This is why the gods invented social media.) Later, multiple friends will comment that this statement would indeed be appropriate in the sick bay of the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D), or perhaps at a cos-play convention. And that is the best kind of meta-commentary of all: when both the original speaker and the Intervening Narrator are pushed further than they originally intended by the humor-producing instincts of the group, like middle-aged crowd-surfing rockers borne aloft by their fans.

When I decided to write an “essay” (or, given its loose structure, a “dossier”) about eavesdropping, I had a trove of material to work with. I’ve been posting these snippets of overheard conversation on Facebook for over 10 years; thanks to the handy new search function that Mark Zuckerberg has installed in our collective hippocampus, I was able to locate all my posts containing the word “overheard” quickly and easily. There are dozens of them, mostly from the bus that I rode for hours every week during my 13 years in Vancouver—my problem was first and foremost how to choose. I decided to eliminate any that were deeply upsetting, or simply sad. But I want to close with this one—which starts off as the former but I think is worthy of inclusion since it captures the full range of the eavesdropping experience.

September 6, 2011 · Number 20 Bus5 · Hastings Street · Vancouver, BC, Canada
Bus driver just told an asshole on the bus to put his dog back in its carrier, upon which the asshole shouted at the driver, “What are you wearing a turban for—you’re fucking here in Canada?” I was still shaking with rage and composing a tirade in my head when the asshole jumped off at the next stop. Everyone—everyone—left on the bus started calling out support to the driver, who shrugged it all off nonchalantly. He’s used to it.
Later: Same bus. Just watched a woman take off all her clothes, including bra and panties, and put on a whole new outfit. Thank god you’re here, lady.

1

Non-Playing Character, for all you non-gamers out there.

2

This is a British expression (used frequently by my Kiwi spouse) that means to mock, ridicule, or tease. Sometimes I forget that many Americans are not familiar with the phrase; I am not referring to involuntary catheterization.

3

Of course my Victorianist peeps will immediately think of the most infamous example of all, Chapter 17 of Adam Bede, which is literally entitled “In Which the Story Pauses a Little”—so that the narrator/George Eliot can yammer on and on about his/her theory of artistic representation. I mean, I love this kind of thing or I wouldn’t have decided to make it my job, but sometimes I do wonder what the hell Victorian authors were thinking. Pushy much?

4

For others in this position, I recommend SAD lamps, which probably help only through the placebo effect but at least give you the impression that you are taking up weapons against the armies of darkness. Cruel optimism, indeed. (Special shout-out to my wide readership in the Shetland Islands and Trondheim.)

5

All my Vancouver friends will understand why this could only have taken place on the #14 or #20 bus.