Sometime in late April, I was sitting in the park with a friend. Besides worrying about the world, not much was happening in our lives; consequently, we didn’t have much to say. Then, in a rushing wave of excitement, we realized that the two men sitting on a bench about 15 feet away were going through what appeared to be a breakup. Our ears perked. Our backs stiffened. We became giddy in an almost ingrained sense.
“I just felt really left out around your friends when we were on shrooms,” said one guy to the other, wiping away tears as the presumed boyfriend gazed stone-faced, clearly unhappy. Suddenly, our conversation was shocked back to life by a million questions: Is this a breakup? Is this a friendship breakup? Is this the first time they’re seeing each other in quarantine? What the hell happened when they were on shrooms? We tried not to make eye contact, subtly moved just a bit closer, and attempted to keep picking sentences out of the air.
Like gossip and sex and many of the cheap and naughty thrills of life, casual eavesdropping is another activity now mostly relegated to life before the pandemic, and something I really, really miss. We’re no longer living in a world conducive to listening to conversations not meant for you, whether it’s work gossip you hear from the stall in the office restroom, friends chatting when you’ve left a room at a party, or strangers sitting across from you in a restaurant.
Eavesdropping is so fun precisely because it is so wrong. It’s a complete break of the social contract, a listening-in that doesn’t ask for permission. It’s a very Proustian form of voyeurism, which in the current decade extends not only to whispered chats but to text conversations you can tilt your head at just the right angle to see. As a serial eavesdropper, I specialize in this — looking for the person standing alone at the bar and typing hectically into their phone. I love the titillating move of positioning your body perfectly to see the angry messages passing between them and, well, usually their mother or partner.
This is also the risk of eavesdropping. You’re taking the chance that you might get caught. While it’s not illegal per se, some might call it rude or nosy or disrespectful. But then again, this is also the risk run by the person talking or typing in a public place.
Maybe people love eavesdropping because it’s how you expand your worldview as a kid. It’s how you learn new words, including perhaps your first curse word, or find out your parents are, or are not, getting along very well. In a society where adults are hopelessly bad at talking to their children about sex, it’s how you learn about the technicalities of intimacy for the first time — eavesdropping on older siblings, more mature kids at school, or maybe again your parents, if they are getting along. (Aren’t these the two cultural tropes of eavesdropping youth? Listening to their parents fight or listening to their parents get it on?)
On a more generous level, there’s also the possibility that eavesdropping is a special form of caring for one another in a world that feels so isolating. The act of eavesdropping may imply a sincere interest in the life of someone else, wanting to know how their sadness or anger will be resolved or what happened to make them so excited or happy. Maybe some people listen with the secret knowledge that they can step in if needed. I personally find the most rewarding eavesdropping to be when I do make myself known. “Actually, the subway station is that way,” or “I’m so sorry for eavesdropping, but you should totally dump your boyfriend.” It’s how I’ve made friends being lonely in a new city and, as a writer, how I can sometimes keep my finger on the pulse of what people are talking about.
Eavesdropping has the potential to be rude but also this potential of an unexpected connection. A mentor of mine often quotes Judith Butler writing about what sex and desire do to us: “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other.” That’s eavesdropping in a way: a weird and at times unseemly form of kinship. It can bring us together, whether we listen in and walk away knowing someone else a little bit more or we get caught and are forced to answer for ourselves. That’s what is exciting about it.
At the beginning of the year, my fling and I broke up twice, once in a bar and the second time at dinner in a dark bistro. Why we broke up publicly two times is beyond me, as one of the problems we were addressing was that we hadn’t gone anywhere together except his apartment for nine months. But maybe we did it this way because, if eavesdropping is a voyeuristic pleasure, giving others material to eavesdrop on is an exhibitionist pleasure. I kind of liked that the waiter and the couples nearby could hear us hashing out why the relationship wasn’t going to work.
Maybe that’s what we all should do. Talk a little too loudly on the phone next time you’re at the grocery store. Take your breakups to the park. Confront your roommates about your household problems while walking down the street. Turn your phone brightness all the way up or dictate those passive-aggressive texts to your mom out loud. We’re all a little starved for connection, even if it’s not direct, so give someone else something to listen to, or maybe even something to care about.