Saturday, July 14, 2007

Not Exactly Minding My Own Business

I’m an eavesdropper, something I’ve been all my life. In fact, I’m so bad that often if I’m out at a restaurant, I might be more tuned-in to the argument going on at the table behind me than I am to the conversation at my own table (depending on how interesting the conversation at my own table is or isn’t). When I was growing up, this habit of mine was considered rude, and I had to be very discreet to avoid being chastised for it, but I’ve decided this is an etiquette standard that needs to go the way of such antiquated standards as insisting men be the ones to walk closest to the building when escorting women down the street so that anything being dumped out of windows, like the contents of chamber pots, won’t land on delicate females. I mean, how can one possibly avoid eavesdropping when stuck in airports and on airplanes for as many hours as I have been over the past two weeks? And if you’re going to hold loud, personal phone calls in public places, you have no right to complain if others are straining to listen, nor do you have any right to complain if said phone call ends up in a blog post or in a book or a movie one day. As a matter of fact, I’d like to create some rules of etiquette for such cell-phone users to follow that demonstrate their thoughtfulness toward the poor people stuck eavesdropping on their conversations.

I used to find loud cell phone conversations extraordinarily annoying, because being an eavesdropper, I can’t concentrate on the book I’m reading when someone is telling his daughter she’d better be home when he gets there, or she’s not going to be allowed to see Ralph anymore. When I’m calling Bob for the fifteenth time to tell him my flight has been delayed yet again, no matter how frustrated I am, I’m always barely whispering into the phone, hoping I don’t disturb those around me.

Then, I got stuck sitting next to the woman in a seat on a plane that was about to taxi out for take-off who was barely whispering into her cell phone and crying. The only thing I managed to catch was, “His kids wouldn’t even say ‘goodbye’ to me.” Come on. If you’re going to whip out your phone for such a call in such tight quarters, the least you can do is speak loudly enough for those of us who have immediately decided this is far more interesting than Tom Brown’s School Days and are dying to know what’s going on. Especially those of us who never, ever cry in public places unless others are crying – those of us who catch tears the ways most catch yawns. There I was, sympathetic lump forming in my throat, and confound it (as someone in Tom’s school would say), I didn’t even know why.

Of course, she had to put away her phone once we were ready for take-off. She wiped her eyes, composed herself, and asked the man next to her if she could borrow sections of his WSJ. I hate to talk to people on airplanes, but I was dying to talk to her. The problem is, I wasn’t dying to talk to her about where she was going, where she’d been, what she does for a living, the way most gabby people on airplanes do. I was dying to ask her why she was crying. I didn’t, though, not even when the drink cart came, and I had the perfect opportunity when she looked at the label on the wine she’d ordered, snorted as she told me she normally wouldn’t drink this stuff, but then explained she needed it after the day she’d had. I just nodded my understanding and kept all my questions to myself. Perfect opportunities hate me, because I always ignore them when they make their appearances.

As soon as we landed, she whipped out her cell phone again, and there I was, trying to catch snippets of what she was saying: something about the need for the youth pastor to go visit him in the hospital. What? Here I’d spent two hours conjuring up some soon-to-be-ex-husband (I’d checked for a wedding band as soon as I’d caught the bits and pieces of that first conversation) or maybe a brother or something who even had his kids giving her the cold shoulder, when there was some young person in the hospital needing a youth pastor? Forget speaking a little louder, so I can hear you. Put the damn phone on speaker and let me hear the whole conversation, please. But I realized I deserved this, as I watched the back of my missed opportunity stepping off the plane.

Next up was the high school kid whose whole conversation I could hear during the few moments she sat next to me at Gate C26 in O’Hare airport. Until she sat down, I’d been busy figuring out that the kitchen could go right there behind the counter, and my bedroom would be right by the windows, so I could have perfect views of all the planes taking off while lying in bed, in my new permanent place of residence. Before I knew it, I was saying “goodbye” to my architect as this kid’s conversation walked through my imagination’s door without knocking and sat down in my favorite chair without asking.

She was talking to some friend about some girl she’d pissed off for not inviting her to be in a dance she’d choreographed. She explained that she wasn’t going to talk to Miss P.O.ed if Miss P.O.ed couldn’t learn to talk on the phone without screaming at her. Miss Choreographer wanted her friend to inform Miss P.O.ed that she (Miss Choreographer) had never said she couldn’t dance. All she’d done is made up a dance that was for four dancers (sorry, but Miss Choreogrpaher wasn’t polite enough to explain to those eavesdropping around her how the lucky four chosen to be in the dance had been chosen. If Miss Choreographer had been the party responsible for choosing the participants, then I would tend to agree with Miss P.O.ed that Miss P.O.ed had not been invited to be in her dance. However, she did give eavesdroppers the news that her dance had most definitely not been a rip-off of some dance on YouTube, because, how stupid would it be for 15-and-16-year-olds to be copying 18-year-olds on YouTube -- you know, there being such a huge difference between the two?).

I think Miss P.O.ed then got on the phone herself, because Miss Choreographer started explaining to this new person she’d never rolled her eyes at her and had never told her she couldn’t be in the dance. However, Miss Choreographer was most definitely going to ignore her now at practices, so don’t be surprised. Just as she was explaining exactly why she can’t be friends with someone who ___________, Miss P.O.ed must have hung up on her. She jumped up from her seat next to mine, informing her poor mother, who was patiently sitting in another row of seats near two younger sisters, she was going to walk around, as she pushed her re-dial button (her story all the more intriguing, because this oh-so-American girl's mother sat dressed in the attire of her native country: India).

I wanted to yell, “Come back!” This had just begun to get really good. I wanted to hear what type of person a girl had to be in order to be her friend. I wanted to know if Miss P.O.ed would get her way. Would she ever get to dance? Would she make up her own dances, with YouTube debuts, and exclude Miss Choreographer? I’ll never know.

But the one that grabbed hold of the romantic who’s a permanent resident at Emily’s Imagination was the guy on another taxi-ing airplane who was obviously in the beginning stages of a new relationship (I’m assuming it was with a woman, as he seemed to be about as heterosexual as they come). Listening to a one-sided flirtation is highly amusing. He was dressed in a Harley Davidson t-shirt and baseball cap, but was asking her if she liked wine, because he had tickets for a wine-tasting and jazz event somewhere (her response caused him to assure her she wouldn’t have to drink any red wine if she only liked white, thus dropping her a notch or two in my estimation). Then he joked about how she was going to think he was all “cultured.” My thought was, “if this is a blind date, and you show up dressed like that, no need to worry.” However, he was so cute in his excitement (the flight attendant had to tell him to turn off his cell phone), and he called her again as soon as we’d landed, I found myself hoping the woman on the other end was as into him as he seemed to be into her. I wanted to follow him around, spy on him, see if I felt she was worthy of him (already suspicious she might not be, you know, because of the whole red wine business).

I think you can understand now why I’m feeling the need for a few new rules of etiquette. I’d like to propose the following. Perhaps Miss Manners will include them in her next book.

1. Speak loudly and clearly, so the eavesdropper next to you can get the full story
2. Before dialing that number, turn to the people sitting around you and give all the background information they’re going to need in order to understand the conversation
3. Do not leave your seat until you have finished the entire conversation
4. When you’ve hung up the phone, invite those around you to follow you around for a few days, so you can meet the people who were on the other end of the phone


Rebecca H. said...

No wonder we're friends, Emily, because we share so many of the same traits! I love eavesdropping on people, and my pleasure is complete if I can whisper the juicy details to Hobgoblin right away.

litlove said...

Oh Emily, you are the Baudelaire of the airport lounge. Wonderful post!

Charlotte said...

I love how you are admitting to something I do unashamedly. And I agree with your rules - people who are carrying out interesting one-sided conversations should at least provide more details.

Do you also find yourself watching groups of people and trying to work out the dynamics between them?

Anonymous said...

5. Let the person eavesdropping join in the conversation and give opinions and helpful advice.

I love this post!

Anne Camille said...

I'm an eavesdropper too! I find lunchtime conversations in restaurants among the hardest to ignore. I shuddered in a moment of self-awareness the other day when, after ending a 45 min conference call in an airport, I realized that the ears of several people seated nearby had been exposed to the various internal issues within my department!

Anonymous said...

Oh, oh! Me Too! I love to eavesdrop. I have done it for years. I have joined conversations in concert halls, been admonished by my husband for shamelessly listening to other people in restaurants instead of him. I truly enjoyed this post.

Only, I would definitely have asked the crier if there was anything I could do. Having been the emotionally traumatized person at the airport on occasion, I know that I would have really appreciated it if there had been someone who was kind enough to pat my shoulder and say There There.

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, yes, I'm beginning to realize we have lots and lots in common.

Litlove, as you have already guessed, flattery will get you everywhere!

Charlotte, oh, absolutely, I try to figure out group dynamics (teenagers are especially interesting, for some reason).

Linser, now how could I have missed THAT important etiquette rule?

Cam, well, if you'd been sitting next to me, I probably would have been happy as a clam, especially since I've had a few "internal issues" of my own in the past to be happy to hear I'm not alone in this regard.

Ms. Magic Hands, you are a far better person than I and should have been sitting in that seat in my stead. You're right: the woman probably would have appreciated a sympathetic ear from a completely objective stranger.

Froshty said...

I love to eavesdrop, too, but usually on two people chatting. In fact, if I can't hear what a group of people is saying in a restaurant, then I tend to look at their facial expressions and try to guess the subject of their conversation. I had Anna in stitches one time when we were eating in the bistro that, starting this week, will be her place of employment because I saw a couple that was a little older than me talking intently and looking upset with a guy that I could tell was their son and told her, "I'm pretty sure he just told his parents that he's gay." I tend to tune out cell phone talkers, but it looks like that has been a major oversight on my part.

Heather said...

We were separated at birth - I'm convinced.

Anonymous said...

This is great, and I'm not surprised an avid reader like yourself is such a hardcore eavesdropper--there are lots of parallels between the two, don't you think?

For the record, I always thought that the man was supposed to make sure he was walking closest to the street, not the buildings, in case an errant car slammed into the sidewalk or splashed a mud puddle towards the couple. So much for my understanding of proper etiquette (not that I ever obeyed this rule).

Anonymous said...

I am sad to say I am not much of an eavesdropper. But your post makes it sound so fun I must work on it!

Emily Barton said...

Froshy, yes, major oversight. Start tuning in. You won't be disappointed.

Ms. Blossom, it seems there's a whole, huge gang of us that were separated at birth. How on earth did that happen? We need to have one of those joyful, meet-each-other-at-last reunions; someone needs to call Oprah.

Danny, you're absolutely right about the tie between avid readers and eavesdropper, and now you've made the librarian in me want to look up that rule of etiquette and find out the truth.

Stef, it IS fun and a great way to entertain yourself when stuck in airports for hours on end.

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness I am laughing so hard right now! Like all of us here, I am an eavesdropper, but my personal pet peeve remains people who TALK ON THE PHONES WHILE USING A PUBLIC RESTROOM. This happens at least once a day at work and I just can't fathom what motivates a person to carry on a conversation while...well, you know...

and, O'Hare is the scourge of the world. I have never had luck flying into or out of that airport on the first try.

IM said...

I've waited all day to comment on your blog because I didn't want to be the 13th comment--that's how bad my superstition has become. But I'm going to overcome it just so I can put in my two cents. I like to eavesdrop as well, and I like to let my imagination run away with the little bits of information I get. I also like viewing people from afar, not with binoculars or anything creepy, but just seeing if I can guess their story a little bit. It's natural to be curious about strangers, and now, in the era of the cell phone, it seems we have more opportunities to listen in and get a bigger picture of people's private lives with out the need for restraining orders and such. Of course our current administration takes it way to far.

IM said...

The only ones that bug me are the ones who you can tell want to be overheard, like they're bragging about their car or something. (I had to get the fourteenth comment on so I can counteract the bad mojo from being the thirteenth comment.

IM said...

Okay, so I forgot that you screen your comments. How was I to know that Courtney had posted the thirteenth comment. Whew, I'm relieved. Oh, yea, sorry for all the typos.

Emily Barton said...

Court, I'm with you on the people who carry on conversations in the restroom. I still find myself wondering if it's some crazy person talking to him or herself until I see them walking out with the phone.

Ian, looks like Court beat you to it, so you weren't thirteenth after all, but if it means I got an extra comment, I'm happy. And I, too, hate the ones who seem just to be bragging,. Businessmen bossing people around, wanting everyone to know how important they are, are my particular bugaboo.

mandarine said...

I know the perfect remedy against airport eavesdropping: travel to places where you do not know the language, or places with an unfamiliar dialect or accent. It does not take much concentration to tune in on partial and faint conversations in a background hubbub when spoken in a familiar language, but it takes so much focusing when it is spoken in a different language that you cannot be drawn into the conversation against your will. I can't read books on a French train or in a French airport without mp3 music in my ears, but you can leave me in a German stadium or an Irish pub and I will not be distracted. Morality: if you want out of eavesdropping, you'd better be Finnish or Hungarian and live abroad.

Emily Barton said...

Mandarine, seems I'd better start arranging for business meetings in France, then.

Marissa Dupont said...

I heartily agree! And could we make another rule: if you're going to have a BORING cell phone conversation, please keep your volume to a minimum or go somewhere private. :D