When you are in a cramped space like a full airplane or an airport waiting lounge, you really can’t have an expectation of privacy. Whether you’re having a conversation with someone you know or a stranger you’ve just met, your words are not safe. Eavesdroppers are everywhere.
I’m sure there are those using eavesdropping for dark purposes like corporate espionage, but for me it is simply to kill time when I’m travelling alone.
In an airport waiting area, once I’ve watched the looping reel of news on the nearest television eight times, I’m looking for something, anything, to pass the time. Strangers’ conversations become a source of entertainment; like watching a soap opera.
If the conversations close to me aren’t compelling enough, I may even lip read a conversation at a distance. Since I’m not very good at lip reading, I get to imagine a lot of juicy parts that haven’t really been said.
Sometimes I’m lucky enough to drop in on a conversation that is genuinely interesting or useful. Maybe the topic is financial information that can be used for insider trading to make a profit (but we all know that is illegal).
“Insider trading” is also relevant on the social scene; and in this case we call it gossip (and it should be illegal). In your local airport, even without trying, you will overhear the status of many business and personal relationships. Eavesdropping can then be likened to reading the Facebook status lines of strangers. Some are terribly dull, and others are highly educational or entertaining.
Eavesdropping isn’t always just listening in on others (except by definition). Sometimes, there is someone on their laptop or smart phone beside you and you can simply read their Facebook status, or any number of things over their shoulder. You may have purview to their PowerPoint presentation or budgets for work, or maybe they are scrolling through family photos or have just launched an interesting app on their iPad.
I entered into this last one on a recent flight. Sitting beside a nice couple, my in-flight entertainment system was not working and I hadn’t pulled out my laptop yet. The husband (on the aisle) was playing a game where you have to find one word that matches four photos. I watched from my window seat for a while and then when he and his wife were stumped on a set of photos I heard myself blurting out the answer. I thought it was in my head, but no, it was out loud.
Had it been me playing the game, I’m not sure if I would have been relieved to have been given the answer so that I could continue on in the game or if I would have been annoyed at having the challenge cut short. Luckily he didn’t seem upset, or perhaps I was simply saved because his wife was sitting between us [wink].
Regardless, it started a conversation about eavesdropping. The wife admitted to having read books over someone’s shoulder before. I’ve done it too when my seatmate has planned ahead and brought more interesting reading material than I have on me.
The husband said there should be a new word for this transgression, as eavesdropping didn’t cover it. I coined it readsdropping and we all seemed happy with that.
Admittedly, books can be quite tough to read over someone’s shoulder since the print is so small and people read at different speeds. Magazines offer a great chance to catch up on the not so interesting lives of celebrities as the headlines and photographs are big and easy to see out of the corner of your eye. (Decorum necessitates some stealth in readsdropping, same way that you wouldn’t hold up a glass to your ear to better hear a conversation while eavesdropping).
We chatted a bit more, and then once the in-flight entertainment system was reset, like neighbours having said a courteous hello before going into our respective houses, we each focused on finding a movie to watch.
Curiosity may sometimes kill the cat, but eavesdropping, readsdropping, and jumping in on a conversation (or game) here and there can sometimes start new friendships, even if only for the duration of a flight.