Seated across from my dining companion, my gaze is locked into the conversation, attentive to the words gushing forth. The restaurant is cozy and crowded, filled with the energy of a Friday night, friends and dates out celebrating and commiserating. As the soliloquy at my table grows mundane, my ears turn mischievous, grazing away from the frequency of my partner and tuning into the gossip and lamentations of the surrounding tables. With my aural attention spread precariously thin, I run the risk of missing an important morsel of my friend’s story, of having my distraction called out. But I do not feel overly guilty; eavesdropping is a simple pleasure.
Despite restaurants and cafes being obviously public spaces, they are the locus of intensely private conversations. In these hospitable settings, people let their guards down, lulled by the camaraderie, by the presence of loved ones, by the veneer of isolation, and by the amplifying effects of spirits and hearty fare. Conversation topics that would never hold in a more staid environment are mined with aplomb, with juicy tidbits unleashed for all to hear.
In a small Valley, there is every chance that one knows the table neighbor, an acquaintance in passing or somesuch. Amongst locals, there is an impetus to keep secret the more damaging overheard comments due to the mutually assured destruction of everyone knowing everyone’s business. Of course, this is counterbalanced by the recognition that one’s public actions and comments are likely to filter through the grapevine that drives the community’s rumor mill. There can be no expectation of privacy in a town with so many serendipitous meetings, with so many chances to hear private thoughts.
Whereas the quasi-omerta with residents makes sense to me, there is no such code whence overhearing the lavish dialogues of strangers, usually on a chairlift. It is astounding the raunchy, comical, or purely offensive statements that folks will unleash in the gondola. Gilded by a smile, I listen in on the intrigues, the petty squabbles, the jokes, the hilariously confident misinformation, the cringeworthy political commentary. Often, it is all I can do to remain a passive observer, wanting to either laugh out loud, cry, or chastise.
As an ardent student of human nature, a continuing education that fuels my work with conflict, hearing the unvarnished recitations of a wide variety of humans is an academic goldmine. The manner in which people interact colloquially is indicative of how they will react when faced with a dispute. To eavesdrop upon a conversation is to hear another’s deepest fears, sincerest hopes, bluntest assessments, funniest anecdotes. It is a way to have a full picture of other people without requiring a clinical relationship. Eavesdropping also provides tremendous fodder for an erstwhile writer of fiction such as yours truly.
Sometimes a neighboring dialogue is so enveloping that one’s own conversation ceases. Violet and I were recently captivated by the absolutely heart wrenching discussion occurring at the table next to us. A daughter in her twenties spent an excruciating time dissecting her parents’ divorce to her mother, a trauma still obviously at the fore of her existence despite the passage of a decade. As the details of her psychological damage were laid bare to her mom in an alarmingly anesthetized tone, Violet and I could only stare at each with equal parts disbelief, empathy, and sadness. By the time that the duo departed, we felt that we knew both too much and not enough.
Eavesdropping carries a negative connotation that is not fully deserved. It is not wiretapping, for example. For the curious and social creature, immersing in the conversations of others is a great joy, a significant revelation, a means to understand society and oneself. Yet, I will be neither surprised nor offended if the next time that I enter a local restaurant, my dining neighbors fall conspicuously silent.