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The perils of eavesdropping


“Eavesdropping” comes from the 17th century reference to a person listening “under the eaves,” referring to a gossip-monger catching conversations heard from open windows.

Listening to the private conversation of others without their consent is how eavesdropping is defined. (In online chats, this is called lurking.) There is the element of stealth when dipping into conversation one is excluded from. The waiter serving coffee at the meeting or the minute-taker representing an absent boss are considered part of the furniture even as they soak in the juicy tidbits of whose promotions were rejected. These are really eavesdroppers who partake of the snack but not the discussion.

Picture yourself waiting for a late lunch companion. You busy yourself with your iPhone as you read a newly downloaded book. You are absorbed by the concept of “mission creep” in the Afghanistan war. And then, a snatch of conversation reaches you. You catch a familiar name in a situation being discussed which is somewhat familiar to you. It’s about a new CEO.

Do you proceed to read about the hubris of General Petraeus and the duplicity of Pakistan? Or do you lean back to get a better angle to surf over the sound of piped-in music? (It’s Adele singing “Someone Like You.” You’re tearing up and distracted.)

The unwritten etiquette allows curiosity to trump good manners when it comes to topics of interest to you. And you are a person of varied interests. Here are some tips for the eavesdropper.

Try to project nonchalance. To lean closer to the table where the interesting conversation is taking place invites suspicion, not to mention the possibility of toppling over your chair and breaking a spine. (Headline: Executive drops dead at a restaurant… Sub-Head: Food poisoning suspected.) Although, it’s really a case of “rumor mortis.”

Best to sit still, put down your iPad and pretend to study the menu. This presumes an asymmetry of recognition — you know the ones talking, but they don’t recognize who you are because of your low status in the totem pole. (Sure, you read a lot. So what?)

It is important to look busy and therefore unable to spare any attention to multiple conversations going all around the restaurant. The dine-in capacity has increased. You ask for the special of the day after having exhausted the menu or looking a little too nerdy with your absorption with your iPhone. Your eyes are fixed on the seared tuna and prawns in garlic sauce, as if looking for a coded message from Mars.

You realize that, since the eavesdropped conversation is not actually intended for your ears, you may miss out on key words and not have the luxury of asking the story-teller to speak louder please and repeat the word you missed — “And at that point she… (crash of plates)… his (scraping of chair being pulled)…and his voice has acquired a higher register since.”

It is bad form to be so obviously tuned to a conversation in the next table that you do not notice your lunch mate already seated in front of you and asking to your embarrassment what you think you’re doing… even if it is clear to her what you’re up to. She is doing hand signals to get your attention. Her frantic movements may attract the attention of the other table as they turn their heads to look at you more closely — he looks vaguely familiar. Isn’t he with fleet maintenance?

The curse of the eavesdropper entails hearing his name being discussed and about to meet an unexpected fate — yes, he’s in the list of those being let go. Someone still needs to inform him next week.

Anyway, there are those who don’t mind being overheard. They talk with loud voices as if addressing the congregation at a religious revival. They even pause for appreciative laughter when they deliver worn-out jokes. These uninvited guest speakers attract head-turning intended to shame them into lowering their voices and getting off the pulpit.

It is impolite to continue eavesdropping when you already have someone to talk with. And when you have secrets to bring up at the table yourself, be conscious of the person next to you. Watch that guy who seems to be poring over the menu with his body tilted ever so slightly in your direction.

Some people have no shame.

Tony Samson is chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda

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