Urban Eavesdropping

Written by Jeanne Martinet on . Posted in On Topic OTDT, Opinion and Column.


New York, just one big cocktail party

By Jeanne Martinet

I was biking along the crowded Hudson River Greenway, all my focus on avoiding pedestrians, roller-bladers and darting toddlers, when suddenly two guys whipped by me on their bikes (passing on the right, no less) at super high speed. Annoyed at their recklessness, I was deciding exactly what withering thing to yell at them when I overhead one saying to the other, “…the real problem with our education system, the one no one ever talks about, is…” and then they were gone. My irritation was instantly replaced with a burning desire to hear what the guy had been about to say. I wanted to catch up to them, but there was no hope of that. Darn! What about the education system? Was it something I didn’t know about? Wait up!

One of the most wonderful things about New York City is that, because we are almost always within earshot of someone else, we have unlimited opportunities to listen in on the conversations going on around us. It’s as if New York were one giant cocktail party and we are all of us guests (or audience members at an avant-garde play, held on a very large stage). And this may sound New York-centric, but people here tend to be smarter, more talented, more culturally-diverse and more engaged in what goes on around them than they are in other places, so our conversations tend to be more interesting—and often more unguarded.

You can overhear personal secrets, philosophical and psychological discussions, juicy arguments, helpful lifestyle tips, political theory, news of the day, celebrity gossip. Who needs Twitter when you are on the sidewalks of New York? And it’s almost better that you usually never get the whole conversation, but only a snippet. Sometimes the few words you overhear can spur on a conversation between you and whomever you are with. You can have fun trying to figure out exactly what was being discussed, or try to guess what would have been said next. Or, if you happen to overhear two sides of a debate, you can talk about who you think is right. Overhead dialogue from a stranger can change the timbre of your whole day.

Is this eavesdropping? When you overhear something particularly intimate (“I did not even use protection last night”), it can feel like eavesdropping, yet it’s really accidental. However, if you decide to follow strangers into a store where you have no business, solely for the purpose of listening to the story a woman is telling about her messy divorce, you may have crossed the line into stalker territory (a conversation stalker!). A conversation stalker may not be as bad as the regular kind of stalker, but there is definitely acceptable and unacceptable urban eavesdropping.

Occasionally you find yourself so drawn to a stranger’s conversation—and so sure you have something of value to contribute—that you may want to try to join in. This must be done carefully, of course. Sometimes New Yorkers don’t respond well when their illusion of privacy is shattered. If you are on a bus or train, or standing together in a line, you can often politely insert a pertinent comment at just the right juncture. But you should be respectful of boundaries and never expect to become a full-fledged participant in the conversation.

Last night I was walking in Chelsea with a friend, holding forth in a completely fantastic manner about a (non-existent) movie deal for a book of mine. I had had a glass of wine or two, which is probably why I was saying, “I just won’t let them do the movie unless I get to write the screenplay,” in such a grandiose tone. Out of the corner of my eye I caught the intrigued quick glance of a passerby, who slowed as I passed. Did I see a turn of her head? Suddenly I realized that my own overheard remark was serving as someone else’s delicious tidbit, if only for a New York minute.


Jeanne Martinet lives on the Upper West Side and is the author of seven books on social interaction. Her latest book is a novel, Etiquette for the End of the World. You can contact her at JeanneMartinet.com.

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