What Is It About Eavesdropping?
And why are coffee shops amazing for people watching?
Eavesdropping is the reward for being out in public. A few minutes after absorbing the last few blistering email threads that unconsentingly ping through my inbox just after 8 AM, I shove my iPhone in my pocket and immerse myself in the blatherings and bustle of a local coffee shop in a crisp late-autumn morning. While strangers are absolutely capable of saying something that would make me execute the Paris, Texas protocol, there are particular circumstances in which I can tune into dumb little conversations that sound like fake trombone noises. At the very least, eavesdropping will treat me with the occasional loopier-than-usual life chat or a hilariously grandiose kerfuffle that will make my groggy mind forget about my Michael Gambon-ass eye bagginess while I trudge through a 65-hour work week.
There is something about coffee shops that attracts vigorously nonsensical conversations. One time, a friend and I overheard someone at the table next to us say, “Their adult diaper was full,” and we halted our dumb debate about the greatest ‘90s hip-hop album because we needed that full story. There are many professionals I wish I had, namely, the ability to maintain a dialogue while fully listening to a different conversation. My go-to eavesdropping maneuver is to wear my headphones without any music playing because people don’t even think twice about my motives. And over-the-ear headphones in public are the wave right now, since wearing them makes me look like I’m rolling up to a basketball game, like I should be an air traffic controller or at least like I should be operating a leaf blower—or depending on the rest of my drip, a DJ who got lost from his turntables and is trying to find their way back.
Usually, the eavesdroppees are too engulfed in their own stories to notice, but just to play it safe, my friend and I will be in the middle of a conversation about the day I had at the park, and someone next to us will start breaking up with their friend in this insufferable HR/therapy-speak by opening with “I’m sorry if this feels painful or confusing” with a sterile bubbliness that surprises both of us. I will contort and stretch my banal observations to some absurd lengths that don’t really lead to anywhere, just to make sure it isn’t obvious that we’re listening.
“Yeah, we were at the park yesterday… and the funny thing about the park… you’ve been to the park and you could sort of just… be at the park… and the park is so, is so… sorry, are you fucking hearing this??”
Most of the time these efforts pay off, as I have been privy to snippets like:
“…where I didn’t feel discriminated against as a smoker…”
—Older lady smoking a cig on the other side of the fenced-in patio while her son is sitting down and sipping on an iced coffee
“He wore a condom, he’s such a gentleman!”
—Sorority girl to her friend
“It’s around that time of the year when I stop feeling joy altogether.”
—Middle-aged man to the barista making his French vanilla latte
“Like, it’s not sexist, I just don’t think a woman is smart enough to manipulate me…”
—College guy to his group of friends (they were quite skeptical)
“… and they found his hand a mile down the tracks…”
—Two old ladies at a table discussing a train accident (or a suicide??)
“Logically, if a man is eating frozen yogurt in public, he’s just gay.”
—Teenage girl talking on the phone
As entertaining as it is to observe the articulations of the rando human mind, there is something deflating about exiting Energy Saver Mode to tune into what winds up being conversational blue balls. “I needed to take a Xanax to fly on the plane.” C’mon, lady, flying is one of the few times that we can make peace with our death because we completely surrender ourselves to Boeing engineers and the laws of physics.