Eavesdropping – Good or Bad?

By Diane Driscoll October 16, 2011 10:44 AM
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Eavesdropping – Good or Bad?

When you live in LA, where every coffee shop you visit wannabe screenwriters hunch over computers in droves working on the next “blockbuster” movie, you know you might be the victim of eavesdropping. That’s life in LA and you know it comes with the territory. Then add to it a whole culture of people talking on cell phones, even on speaker, and often eavesdropping is forced on you whether you like it or (often) not.   

I knew it was going on today.  I just have that spidey sense, because I too of course eavesdrop.  Fodder for my, ahem, next great “blockbuster” story here on weBEgirls, but when the suspicious woman actually commented on what I had just told a friend, “Your parking ticket was for HOW much?!” her cover had been ridiculously blown and she broke the cardinal rule of eavesdropping — never let them know you’re listening! Dumb. Dumb. 

So then I got to thinking, how much do we eavesdrop and why? In an article in USA Today, they point out times have changed, “A century ago, when the first home phones were ‘party lines’ shared by neighbors, ‘worrying you were being listened in on was a common feature of American culture,’ says sociologist Claude Fischer of the University of California-Berkeley.” Now we are a society that has intimate phone conversations in public or tweets and Facebooks every detail of our lives, our relationships, even whether we are single or not. We were once taught by our mamas to mind our own business, but with cell phones and social newtworks we cyber stalk and become online exibitionists complete with pictures. It’s the new norm. Privacy is gone and we have become casual or active evesdroppers as a result. 

 John Locke, a linguistics professor at the City University of New York and author of a new book, Eavesdropping: An Intimate History, says that evesdropping on some level is natural and beneficial, “Apes keep an eye on each other to maintain order, and we humans have neighborhood watch programs.” But eavesdropping is more than just listening in. It’s glancing over at someone else’s laptop screen to see what they’re doing. It’s peering into an apartment window as you walk by. It’s catching a glimpse through a door that’s slightly ajar. It’s trolling Facebook to see what your friends are saying to others. “And yes”, it’s a bit thrilling, he says. “There is something quite tantalizing about this behavior.”

If you look back a few centuries in England, you see that eavesdropping was a crime punishable by imprisonment and court records show that many people were guilty of it. Not so today. We await the shakedown of News of the World’s journalists for illicitly hacking into British celebrity, political and royalty voicemails to find stories. Sure the newspaper shut down and twelve people have been arrested and charged, but British police suspect over 4,000 people were possible targeted. Rupert and James Murdoch deny any knowledge of the hacking but does anyone really believe them? We know eavesdropping on phone conversations is done by our government and police force to protect us. 

We eavesdropped as kids and teenagers at school a form of self-preservation - on teachers to gain information about tests, on friends to find out what was being said behind others backs, and on boys to find out who actually liked us. We do it in work situations where the adage is information is power. If eavesdropping might get us a leg up, then we gladly do it. Having the inside track from those higher up might be the difference between losing and keeping a job today. It is human nature to always look for valuable information but the lines have really blurred.   

Like gossip, eavesdropping can tells us who is helpful and who is not, who is trustworthy and who cheats, who has high status and who doesn’t, without having to interact with them directly.And when we pass this information along it can strengthen our own social bonds and often this give and take of information will be reciprocated. If it wasn’t beneficial in some way, humans wouldn’t do it.   

How often do we eavesdrop?

Don’t know. Locke in his book points out that no studies have been done on this. Scientists have studied eavesdropping on various species, including the work of Peter McGregor, “He pointed out that birds increase their chances of survival by monitoring the long-distance calls of other birds – signals that are not even intended for their ears…the reason why social scientists have failed to document equivalent levels of eavesdropping in humans, however, is not because they looked for it and discovered that there was nothing to be seen. They never looked in the first place.” He attributes this to scientists thinking humans are more rational and intelligent than animals and forgetting that eavesdropping can sometimes be a valuable asset.

Do we really listen?

According to a new study, we women are apparently more enthralled with gossip and eavesdropping than men. When it comes to other people’s conversations, this is when we really listen. “More than two thirds of women admitted that a gossip with friends is the only time they are properly listening to what is being said. The same percentage think they hear most intently when they are trying to eavesdrop on an argument taking place nearby.” The good new is that our best friends most often get our full attention (sorry significant others.) 

More than ever people are confused about the notion of eavesdropping.  How can they remember that it isn’t polite to listen in on other people’s conversations in a coffee house when all around you people on cell phones behave as if they are in their living rooms talking to friends?  And if it’s a juicy details or something told in whispers, they only just lean in to hear more. Celebs take naked pictures of themselves on cell phones only to find them hacked into and making the rounds on the Internet. My advice today is don’t have any conversation in public that you don’t want broadcasted to the world. It just might be. Value your privacy or what little we have left of it.