The dubious pleasures of eavesdropping

Overhearing the noisy majority

Words & images © Paul Ransom

Things begin, as so often they do, with a coffee. This time, a café, a sudden storm in winter. Strangers abruptly crammed. Staff struggling to keep up. For a few minutes there is heavy rain chaos, until, after a while, a lull. People settle in various seats. Phones get consulted and orders start to arrive. Perfect eavesdropping conditions. But what exactly am I overhearing?

It does not take long for my surveillant ears to register the tenor of Channel Tuesday Afternoon. The apocalypse was last week’s big letdown and, collectively, we have passed ‘peak civilisation’ and are now hurtling inexorably towards a future of creeping technocratic tyranny, all-round incompetence, and shit cinema.

“It’s fucken basic, mate. If y’re gonna set a fucken dog trap, wear fucken gloves,” opines the strapping young tradie on the table adjacent.1

While his similarly attired buddy laps up the animal maiming advice, I notice that trapper and friend are both more youthful and less rugged up than the room’s core demographic. However, neither the lack of decades nor the absence of a sensible jacket can put a lid on the prevailing ‘we was bred tough but these days blokes can’t even rig up a rudimentary dog trap’ rant. What’s more, our young complainer is equally irritated by the ubiquitous incompetence and shoddy workmanship of all other tradesfolk.

  • Inspired by his muscular tirade, I picture thousands of good-hearted pensioners cowering in the corners of countless loungerooms while leaky rooves and bad wiring make awful messes of otherwise pleasant afternoons and lazy, unskilled louts in hi-vis vests goof-off in nearby pubs enjoying a bet with mates. 

Meanwhile, people old enough to be our canine-imperilling chum’s grandparents hunker into their puffer jackets and nurse their extra hot lattes. “Oh, you know Greg,” one of them says, entirely confident in her judgement. “Thinks he knows everything.” Hearing this, her companion chimes in to the effect that “Gregory” is exactly what we might expect from someone without a vagina. “It’s just so selfish though,” the verdict is further outlined, to which there are nods and tuts and a final damning assessment. “But no one cares about anyone anymore, do they?”

Over the course of a single long black the world around me is incrementally reduced to a festering swamp of self-regarding amateurs and accelerating glacier melts. No one is to be trusted. The climate is on fire. The vaccine turned Aunty Marley into a potato but the mainstream media won’t touch the story. Even Hollywood is fucked.

“When was the last time you saw a really good movie?” wonders a nearby grandpa, as he bounces a cherubic chid on his grey-slacked knee. For a moment I am hopeful that a sliver of well-considered cultural critique might come my way, before my misplaced optimism, (rather like the aforementioned civilisation), crumbles to a blunt invective. “It’s all Woke shit,” he declares, and I wonder quietly how blatantly Marxist-Leninist films about aging fighter pilots and dead white male rock stars are still getting made. (I mean, where’s the money – oops, virtue – in that?)

It is like being on the set of a neo-realist film, with the untrained actors running through their improvised dialogue while the hand held camera hovers discreetly nearby.

Yet, for all the non-glove wearing, badly built, PC madness that seems to be swirling around me, I remain calm. As a career eavesdropper I have come to accept that the big takes out from human conversation – as overheard in multiple cafes and movie theatres, and on countless buses – are a sense of decline and disapproval, with a dash of doom for the kick. The neighbours, the government, the kids…all got it wrong. The internet ain’t what it used to be neither; especially now that it’s spying on us.

However, rather than a school of despair and disrepair, the chatter of random others is most often revealing and nearly always useful, at least from a writer’s perspective.2 The talkback line of overheard opinion is an informal barometer; like an intermittent social research project conducted on the fly using small and scattered sample groups and utilising none of the usual controls. Thus, while no single conversation or seasonal downpour can be said to pithily encapsulate the soul of our times, each voyeuristically consumed morsel tells us something about the mores and the mindset of the moment. Over time, these titbits aggregate, creating a panorama of sorts – a widescreen view of the way we feel about ourselves and the world we have (shoddily) constructed.   

Put it another way; people have a habit of revealing themselves and I have a habit of tuning in. My bet is that you do too. Perhaps we all do, when we’re paying attention, because on occasion our nosiness rewards us.

Like the next table. A loud group of three. All, pointedly and proudly, members of a local football club. Indeed, I soon learn that the trio represent the rump of the now outgoing ‘organisational committee’ and that their recent replacements are reputedly undermining the financial bedrock and moral fibre of their beloved club, following a string of ‘totally fucking braindead’ decisions.

“Ah well, it’ll be a blessing when we miss the finals then.”

“That’s right, Michael. I’m afraid further on field failure is an absolute must at this point.”

At this, the woman of the group butts in. “Now remember, boys, these things have a way of fixing themselves.” She leaves us with that thought for a few seconds, before adding, “Except of course if this is how people really see the future of the club.” Then, when challenged by her miffed companions, she responds, “Well, the membership voted for them, didn’t they?”

“All I’m saying is that not making finals makes people unhappy, and when they’re unhappy they start looking for alternatives.”

“Fuck me mate, are you seriously saying the boys should go soft on Saturday?”

“No one needs to get themselves injured, do they?”

“Nah, of course not – but what about pride?”

“Any year you don’t win the flag is a blow to the pride, Michael – and that’s most years, so what’s one more?”

“Ah well, like they say mate, football is a game of disappointment.”

Eureka, I thought, as I toyed with the imaginary final drop of my now non-existent black. The pearl had just landed. Dropped on my eave. I sat back, elevated. Everything was clear. Football was a game of disappointment. I could relax now. Thanks Mike.

However, serendipitous revelations are not the main drivers of my ongoing eavesdropping project. Like people watching, people listening is entertaining. It is like being on the set of a neo-realist film, with the untrained actors running through their improvised dialogue while the hand held camera hovers discreetly nearby. The edited narrative only emerges later, in retrospect. In the mirror.

Furthermore, what you learn from eavesdropping is not to read too much into it. Not only do we hear these conversations largely out of context but are reminded by them that much of what people say is filler; a pleasantry, a boast, a signal. A way to bandage silence.

Therefore, much as I might indulge a fantasy of precious rarity, it turns out being unique is not unique. I know this because I keep on overhearing it.

When we spy on strangers we are also privy to the prevalence of play-acting, and of psychological gamesmanship. Frequently, whilst furtively tuning in, what jumps out of a scene is its emotional and power dynamic. Who is the alpha? Who is trying hardest to impress? Who would rather be poking their phone? Ultimately, listening in is not just about the words, it is about someone else’s world and, by extension, our own.  

It is surely a banality to say that everyone in that wintery café entered with a life in tow and that what I witnessed was the conveniently available soundbite version of those lives. While I may have learned something useful about dog trapping, what this rainy vignette truly revealed was the sound of my own incessant natter. The public opining of unknown others was the private echo of an all too familiar soapbox. We are all, in our own voices, bitching about the weather. (QED!)

The easy conclusion – that everyone else is a selfish, paranoid, nostalgic idiot – is an almost Pyrrhic smugness. Something more interesting than either misanthropy or arrogant exceptionalism are revealed by eavesdropping; namely, that we are all so alike. The orthodoxies of sacralised individualism, of rational actors pursuing predictably aspirational goals, melt away in crowded cafes. For all the demarcations of fashion, age, accent and coffee temperature, what chimes loudest is the sound of the vulnerable, uncertain, eager to impress human animal. Indeed, there is something child-like and charmingly fragile about the egocentric opportunism on display, from speakers and listeners alike. We are so tenuously present. So ephemeral. And we sound so hollow. As though we sometimes speak simply to fill a central space.  

Therefore, much as I might indulge a fantasy of precious rarity, it turns out being unique is not unique. I know this because I keep on overhearing it. Sometimes unique prefers its single origin latte with almond milk, at other times it wants its hot chocolate with an extra marshmallow. And when it is bucketing down outside, unique is wont to take shelter in warm and cosy cafés and sneakily listen in to what the next table is up to. Because unique likes to be reminded that is not alone.

Postscript: After the rain had passed and it was clement enough to risk the walk to the nearest bus stop, I bundled self and shopping bag onboard only to land in the sightlines of two young and angry looking men. I wondered if they were returning from an unsuccessful dog trapping adventure; but no, their focus was neither on animal baiting nor the harassment of middle aged grocery buyers. Rather, their attention was on the guy immediately behind me. A beat later, the newly formed threesome rolled seamlessly into their ‘waddup bra’ routine, at the end of which the late arrival said, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “Just choofed a bunch of crack, bra.” His chums were clearly impressed, if not envious, and a few seconds later a plan to “go round to Benno’s” and procure the next dose was publicly agreed. I was busy amusing myself with daydreams of the upcoming Benno encounter, when the bell rang and the teenage trio scuffed their way to the automatic door. “Why we getting off here, bra?” one of them wanted to know. “Thought we might get some Macca’s first,” came the answer, as though it were obvious that one ought prepare for one’s mid-afternoon crack sesh with burger, fries and a small Coke. (Now, there’s a happy meal.) Thus, as the lads departed towards the golden arches, and the next band of rain spattered the windows, I pondered my bag of fruit and veg, sent well wishes to the boys’ livers, and wondered if people my age were eavesdropping on me when I was a young ‘bra’ and whether they assumed that I too was a selfish dolt who had yet to fully comprehend football’s fundamental ritualisation of failure and who, when not on public transport, maintained a dangerously poor diet.       

1: The trick to a successful dog trap, as mentioned, is good gloves. And why is that? To minimise the chance of said hound smelling said human and, by inference, deciding that the tempting treat on offer is yet another example of pernicious bipedal trickery. (Bet you’re glad you know that now.)         

2: I suspect that a lot of writers – especially script writers – consciously tune into the way that people speak, and the prevailing view of self and world this speech reveals. Since people sit at the heart of all our storytelling, it is to people we should attend. Thus, the eavesdropping opportunities available in public spaces are plentiful and rewarding. Personally, cafes and public transport are the main stadia. Like many other writers I actively listen in, piecing entire worlds together from the few fragments on offer. What’s more, I have concocted all manner of relationship dramas in my imaginings of sundry strangers, playing each role in my head. Yet, sometimes, eavesdropping on the silent is even more revealing.     

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