Confessions of an Eavesdropper


In the way that gays have reclaimed the word “queer” and black rappers the N-word, “eavesdropping” should be reclaimed by those of us who listen in on others’ conversations.

Reappropriation is the cultural process by which a group reclaims—re-appropriates—terms or artifacts that were previously used in a way disparaging of that group. For example, since the early 1970s, much terminology referring to homosexuality—such as gay and (to a lesser extent) queer and poof—has been reappropriated. A reclaimed or reappropriated word is a word that was at one time a pejorative but has been brought back into acceptable usage—usually starting within the communities that experienced oppression under that word.

Reappropriation, Wikipedia

A good listener is highly prized. We value others paying close attention when we speak, especially when we’re talking about ourselves. Listening to others opens us up to new perspectives.

Eavesdropping can also bring insight and understanding. Yet a good eavesdropper is rarely praised the way a good listener is. Especially not after the recent revelations of illegal worldwide eavesdropping by the US National Security Agency (NSA), targeted in an internet campaign this week.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel looking none too happy with the NSA bugging her phone

German Chancellor Angela Merkel looking none too happy with the NSA bugging her phone

Eavesdropping is a very old word so people have obviously been doing it for a long time. It’s number one on a list of Top Ten Words with Remarkable Origins, referring to the water dropping off the eaves of 17th century houses. This marked the best place to stand and secretly listen to conversations inside (presumably with your collar up to stop water from running down your back).

eavesdrop – ˈēvzˌdräp/ – verb

1. secretly listen to a conversation.”she opened the window just enough to eavesdrop on the conversation outside”

synonyms: listen in on, spy on; monitor, tap, wiretap, overhear, informal: snoop on, bug

Origin: early 17th cent.: back-formation from eavesdropper (late Middle English) ‘a person who listens from under the eaves,’ from the obsolete noun eavesdrop ‘the ground onto which water drips from the eaves,’ probably from Old Norse upsardropi, from ups ‘eaves’ + dropi ‘a drop.’

The NSA doesn’t need to GoogleEarth your address and drive to your house to do its eavesdropping. Thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowdon’s leaking (an appropriately watery metaphor) we know that personal data be snooped from digital devices, from several kilometres away. The NSA can even track you when your computer or cellphone is offline. (Which really gets me because when I can’t connect to the net I’m frustratingly incommunicado, but somehow those American spooks can Keep On Trackin’.)

vintage bugging device

Vintage bugging device

Several decades ago a cartoonist for New York’s Village Voice made an art of eavesdropping with his comic strip, Stan MacK’s Real Life Funnies.  To make it clear that what he wrote in the balloons over his characters’ heads was not made up, he offered a guarantee. In the 1970s it was All Dialogue Is Reported Verbatim. In the 80s it changed to All Dialogue Overheard, and then All Dialogue in People’s Own Words.

Recent Stan Mack comic featuring trademark eavesdropped comments, in My Generation mag/AARP

Recent Stan Mack comic featuring trademark eavesdropped comments, in My Generation mag/AARP

From the early 1990s the words in the comic strip’s speech bubbles began to be about serious issues like AIDS and homelessness. Mack had started eavesdropping among community groups, and they didn’t mind.

We trust Stan, he’s not one of those hit-and-run media guys. He takes the time to listen to the people in the shadows.

– Matthew Lee, leader of the Inner City Homesteaders Association

My New Old Self listens to people in the shadows. More than in years past, when I was too busy rushing about to stop and listen. I don’t eavesdrop on long conversations, no invasion of privacy intended. It’s about hearing quick comments, often totally out of context.

Most eavesdropping consists of chance fragments of dialogue that can be interpreted just about any way the eavesdropper chooses. This is what I like best about eavesdropping. It becomes an entirely personal art form in which the objective is to reconstruct in your imagination a story to match the scraps of dialogue you’ve overheard. Obviously, this viewpoint–of the eavesdropper as artist–is more noble than the traditional viewpoint of the eavesdropper as a scoundrel and wag.

Steven Sorensen, First Person: The Art of Eavesdropping

I also eavesdrop in the comfort of my own home. Unlike the NSA I need an internet connection, but once online (power, phone connection and internet service provider willing) I easily find out what others are thinking. Not only by reading what is written under bylines, but by checking out the Comments sections of websites and blogs. Since people mainly comment anonymously (using cutesy netnames) they are not shy to share their opinions.

As with eavesdropping IRL (In Real Life) you can find out things you weren’t intended to hear. Things that wouldn’t be said to you face to face. This happened to me after reading a recent article offering pointers to adult children: “We’re Old, Not Dead – Being an Ageing Parent Doesn’t Mean We’re Invisible or Useless”.

To me, the writer’s age-mate and fellow ageing parent, the article was accurate, witty and full of insights. Then I viewed it online and saw some of the snide comments from the other side of the generation gap.

We get it, you all invented rock and roll, the internet, space travel, jeans, the polio vaccine, fire, most forms of communication, and leather jackets, all while blasting Springsteen. You’re all Very Important. Go back to reminding yourselves of that. We have to fix your economy.

– comment on “Not Dead Yet: The trials of being—not caring for, not dealing with but BEING—an aging parent” by Judy Oppenheimer, Slate

Bruce Springsteen kisses a fan his age

Bruce Springsteen kisses a fan his age

So Team Baby Boomer wasn’t scoring as well as I thought. Then came a painful realisation: if I hadn’t been lurking in the Comments section, I might have remained blissfully unaware of this kind of animosity from the young towards the old. It was my own fault for engaging in digital eavesdropping.

I was about to exit Comments when I had another realisation. In reclaiming the word “eavesdropping” from the spy world and reappropriating it from pejorative to positive, i shouldn’t try and protect myself from the negative things I may overhear. Which may be enlightening, depressing, edifying, sobering – and most importantly, may inform me about what others, of all ages, are thinking and possibly challenge my own views.

So I took a deep breath and subjected myself to another round of callous youth commentary: “I don’t feel bad for the boomers at all. They made their own dang beds, lie in them.”

Before I could crawl under the covers of my dang bed and mope, I spied a clever repartee from a member of my generation. “What ‘bed’ are you talking about? Growing older? You’re gonna lie in that bed too someday, sweetheart.” Yesssss!






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