Eavesdropping and Writers’ “Research”

When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen

The Addiction Joy of Eavesdropping

How many of you can remember when the phone was a wooden box that hung on the wall, with a tube to speak into, a crank on the side to ring up the operator, and a lonely old lady who listened to all the calls on the party line? I was kindergarten age when our phone was modernized. But the joy of listening secretly to others’ conversations will probably never end.

We writers are instructed that eavesdropping is essential to learning how to write dialogue, an interchange that is often so fragmented and illogical as to make our heads shake and our brains wonder how people ever really communicate. We are told we need to “research” the local dialect by listening. And of course, what better way to pick up juicy tidbits that might help build a plot than to open our ears to those sitting beside us in public. The truth is stranger than fiction. These are all great excuses for what we would love to do anyway.

The psychology of eavesdropping

 An interesting article in WIRED, The Science of Eavesdropping, discusses an interesting paradox – it’s harder to NOT listen to a conversation where the speaker is on a phone, or we’re hearing only one side of the conversation, than it is to NOT listen when both speakers are physically present. “Although the phone conversation contains much less information, we’re much more curious about what’s being said.”

I would add that it is still interesting, depending on the topic, when both sides of the conversation are audible and the speakers are not aware that someone else is listening.

Why do people eavesdrop?

Writer, Maddie Cohen, lists three reasons:

  1. “Eavesdropping Is Primal. We’re all doing our best to go after the things we want. To this end, being hyperaware of what’s going on with other people can help us stay vigilant and protect the things we have.”
  2. “It’s live entertainment!”
  3. “I’m a full-time writer, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I find eavesdropping pretty exhilarating.” In other words, if we’re writers, it’s in our DNA. Good enough for me.

So, let’s discuss this juicy topic:

  1. Where is your favorite place to eavesdrop?
  2. What is your favorite technique for listening in?
  3. What is the juiciest tidbit you have ever gleaned by eavesdropping?
  4. What electronic device for eavesdropping would you like to own (for “research” of course) and how would you deploy it? Invent one, if you wish.
This entry was posted in Eavesdropping, research, Writing by Steve Hooley. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steve Hooley

Steve Hooley is the author of seven short stories published in four anthologies, a Vella serial fiction, and is currently working on the Mad River Magic series – a fantasy adventure series for advanced middle-grade to adults. More details available at: https://stevehooleywriter.com/mad-river-magic/

47 thoughts on “Eavesdropping and Writers’ “Research”

  1. Good morning, Steve.

    I love to eavesdrop. Everywhere. I do so partially for situational awareness but I am truly just nosy.

    I love to eavesdrop in restaurants. It can be difficult, but it can be done. People who are on dates can be the most interesting. I also heard what I thought was a description of a mob hit. It was actually a spot-on recounting of Dennis Hopper’s immortal scene in the movie True Romance where he is tied to a chair and smarting off to Christopher Walken.

    My favorite method is to sit, eat my meal, and glower. People tend to look away from me (if they know what’s good for them) so they don’t notice.

    The juiciest tidbit I acquired is that couples tend to use a Valentine’s Day dinner to break up.

    The device I would most like? A spy camera with audio and video. Shame on me.

    Thanks for getting me thinking this morning, Steve. Have a great weekend!

    • Thanks, Joe. I knew you had stories to tell. Those were great ones. And, I bet there is material there you could use in your writing.

      Thanks for stopping by and entertaining us. Have a wonderful weekend with some opportunities to “research!”

  2. I remember back when I first started reading blogs and articles on writing that mentioned listening to actual conversations to get a feel for writing dialogue, I would listen to real life conversations and think “I can’t write that. No one will have any idea what’s going on!” 😎 As you note, the verbal interchange is often fragmented.

    I don’t have a tendency to eavesdrop unless I’m somewhere that I do not go frequently. Say for example waiting at the airport. Both people watching and eavesdropping are interesting experiments to do while waiting for your flight. Or, whether you want to be an eavesdropper or not, you have no choice when you are in a public restroom & someone in the other stall is talking away on their cell phone.

    Have not overheard anything exciting in any of these conversations that I can recall.

    • Good points, BK. I liked your comment, “No one will have any idea what’s going on!” I just finished breakfast and looked in a bowl sitting by the sink. “What’s that?” I asked. My wife’s response, “I’m baking apple sauce bread.” I still didn’t know what was in the bowl.

      Your mention of eavesdropping in the airport reminded me that a book is a good place to stick your nose while you’re really listening to the guy behind you. And people in the bathroom on their phone (they usually are talking loudly), wouldn’t you like to put that on on the airport loud speaker?


  3. I don’t get out much, so my eavesdropping territory is anywhere I happen to be when there are other people around. My upcoming vacation should provide opportunities, although I fear I won’t understand a lot of what’s being said. I also use bits I pick up in conversations with people. The Hubster usually jumps in and says, “Be careful what you say; she’s a writer” when we’re out with new people.

    • Good point about those of us who don’t get out much. We have to take advantage of every opportunity we have. I hope your vacation provides many good opportunities.

      Studying the structure of sentences in other languages is also interesting. I love how, in Spanish, it’s “to me was lost” versus “I lost.” Meaning, it wasn’t my fault. And on a slightly different topic, observation is fun with a telephoto lens. People don’t know your focusing on them.

      Hope you find some opportunities for research this weekend.

      • I’ve been “studying” German and the word order (not to mention gender, cases, etc.) is killer. I feel fairly confident that people would understand me if I said “I eat fruit every day” instead of “I eat every day fruit.”

  4. My venue for this used to be Starbucks. Conversations happened all around, and I didn’t have to bend my ear. The funniest bit I heard was a friendly argument between two gentlemen of college age. One said, “Is that logical?” The other answered, with complete sincerity, “It’s so logical it’s ridiculous!”

    • Oh, how the English language changes. Wouldn’t it be fun to create a fictional conversation with “ridiculous” meanings for the words used, and stage it within earshot of a college English professor?

  5. I used to tell writers in my dialogue classes if they really want to learn the nuances of dialogue, go to a Denny’s at least three different times (weekday lunch, weeknight supper, 2 a.m. on a Saturday or Sunday morning), buy a cup of coffee, sit alone and just listen to the voices, the inflections. Lawyers, drunks, politicians, cops, hookers, business people, housewives, blue collar workers, etc. show up at those various times. Especially the early morning slot. It almost becomes a stage play.

    • Very interesting, Harvey. You could write “A Guide to Conversation Research, Where, and When.”

      Around here, people talk about “Dirty Denny’s,” but it’s one of my favorite places for breakfast. Now I need to learn who shows up when.

      Thanks for your great ideas!

  6. Dressing rooms in department stores and restrooms. People apparently never realize they can be overheard and yammer away freely.

    Since cell phones, people seem much less guarded about talking in public. It’s almost as if they enjoy showing off during conversations. Eavesdropping in the past was more interesting when people cared about being overhears.

    Best technique is lip reading, although I can’t do it. But a family member was quite deaf for some years and learned how. He could read lips across a room. His boss would nod at business competitors and ask, “What are they saying?” then learned all kinds of helpful intel.

    • Good morning, Debbie. I loved the lip reading idea. Either that or a directional sound collector that could be hidden in a hat and turned in any direction the listener wished.

      Your mention of people speaking loudly in stores and on cell phones reminded me of three months I spent in Costa Rica during college. Americans were known for boarding a bus and speaking so loudly that all the native Spanish speaking people on the bus stopped talking and frowned. That was years ago. Maybe everyone is speaking loudly now.

      And on cell phones, the loud “performing” in public makes me want a sound blocker (or better, a way to turn the phone off) rather than a listening opportunity. You’re right. It’s more interesting when people don’t want to be overheard.

      Have a quiet weekend with a few guarded conversations to listen in on!

  7. Restaurants and coffee shops used to be my place to eavesdrop, though it usually wasn’t so much active eavesdropping as unavoidably overhearing others conversation. Alas, I’ve never had a great memory for conversations, remembering the “gist” rather than exact words.

    I’m mostly at home these days, writing (and socializing on in the internet 🙂 so the opportunities are far fewer. I have a mild hearing impairment, and wear high-tech hearing aids (AKA cybernetic devices), so I already have a sorta spy device, since the sensitivity can be adjusted, though I rarely do.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post! Have a wonderful weekend.

    • Thanks for sharing, Dale. I like those high-tech “spy device” hearing aids. Hiding in plain sight. And, when you don’t want to listen, you can turn them down. Advantages at both ends of the volume spectrum.

      You mentioned socializing on the internet. There’s something refreshing about clarity of written conversation. I wonder if a larger percentage of writers prefer written communication versus the rest of the population.

      I hope your weekend is a good one!

  8. Lately, I haven’t been eavesdropping, don’t know why I got out of the habit.

    The most interesting thing I heard was actually in high school (not dirty). Our creative writing teacher gave us the assignment to walk around the halls during class and write down the dialogue we hear. “Why do you have a fox on your head?” (someone was wearing one of those stupid animal hats.)

  9. Oh yeah, and my favorite game as a kid was guessing who my parents were talking to on the phone.

    • Very interesting. A fox hat. I haven’t seen one of those for a while. I had some excellent English teachers, but we never got to walk around the school and listen to conversations for an assignment. Great assignment.

      Listening to one end of a phone conversation. Yes. Maybe that’s why sitting beside someone who is texting is so boring. You don’t even get to hear one end of the conversation. And after you’ve sat patiently for five minutes, and ask, “What did they say?” The answer is “Oh, nothing.”

      Thanks for adding to the conversation, Azali. Great comments.

  10. Hi Steve! Back in my policing days we did a fair amount of electronic surveillance (wiretaps and bugs). It’s quite regulated by the courts, but it happens all the time in serious crimes investigations. I’ll never forget one bit of intercepted telephone communication:

    Party A: “You shouldn’t be talking like that on your phone. You never know if the cops are listening in.”
    Party B: “Naw, it’s okay. I’m on my office phone.”

    • Great story, Garry. People’s lack of judgement is astonishing and hilarious at times.

      I don’t know if anyone has ever done a review of all the different types of surveillance equipment available or being used (for a TKZ post), but that would be an interesting subject. And you would be the perfect person to write it. Just sayin’, for when you’re sitting there and looking at all your tchotchkes trying to come up with a new subject.

      Thanks for your input!

  11. Great subject matter, Steve!

    Most of my eavesdropping opportunities come when we’re out at a restaurant and have a chance to listen in on others’ conversations. But, to be honest, when we’re with friends, it’s likely other people are listening to us.

    Best memory of hearing one side of a phone conversation:
    I was around eight or nine years old when the phone rang and my mother picked it up. It went like this:

    Mother: “Hello.”
    Mother: “How could I scare you? You called me.”

    After a short conversation, she hung up, and I asked her who called.
    Mother: “It was your Aunt Ruby.” (Not her real name.)
    Me: “What did she say?”
    Mother: “She said I scared her when I answered the phone.”
    Me: “Why was she scared if she called you?”
    Mother: “She said she didn’t think I was home.”

    I really need to write a post about Aunt Ruby. She was unique.

    • Great story, Kay. It makes you wonder why Aunt Ruby called if she didn’t think you were home. More ideas for story plots.

      A post about your aunt sounds interesting.

      It seems that eavesdropping in restaurants is a favorite. Wouldn’t it be fun to install a microphone under every table, and be able to switch channels to find the best conversation?

      Have a great weekend!

  12. My eavesdropping story is reversed. A friend and I were brainstorming a plot idea at a local diner and as we ate our dessert, a woman stopped by our table and said, “You two must be writer. Nothing that interesting ever happens around here.”

    We were so caught up in brainstorming we hadn’t noticed her sitting behind us.

    • Great story, Patricia. At least the eavesdropper didn’t think it was an actual event and call the police.

      And wouldn’t it be fun to reverse the eavesdropping intentionally, knowing that someone was listening, and give them an earful. Or better, give them some information that would cause them to take action, like telling them where the loot is buried.

      I guess it’s good someone knows that when the story gets too crazy, it must be a writer making it up.

      Thanks for telling your story!

  13. I don’t do a lot of eavesdropping. It’s 99% stuff I don’t want to hear. I’ve overheard: On the basketball court at a school: Two teen guys sitting nearby, planning a crime, On a weekend. With people walking past. Through my open window on a hot summer night: A mother telling her daughter that the daughter was going to have a baby. The daughter, 15, was not okay with that. In Beverly Hills, on the street: a young woman speaking to her friend: “My dear, they have a new saying, ‘Situation normal; all foxed up.” At a bar in Honolulu: two people speaking Japanese across a table from me and my sister, comparing us. I knew just enough Japanese to understand. My sister was ichi ban; I was not. I practiced my muhyōjyō (無表情).

    My snooping device would be based on a sonic zone plate: concentric rings of sound reflective and absorbing surfaces. If monochromatic, it would be indetectable. I’d paint it on a wall, focused on a gazebo or park bench where people might sit and chat. I’d construct a bird feeder full of pebbles to serve as the pickup mike holder.

    • Very interesting stories, JG. I agree. I would not have wanted to hear most of that. That snooping device sounds very interesting, and well thought out. Thanks for the link.

      I hope your weekend is ichi ban.

      • Later, I had a conversation with a very kind and elderly in-law of the two Japanese people. His primary language, as was true for many of his age in Hawaii, was Japanese. We spoke for several minutes, using a combination of broken English, nods, gestures, and possibly telepathy. After I returned to L.A., I was told that his family was surprised we were able to carry on a conversation that long, since ichi ban is the extent of my Japanese and Mr. Nakagawa knew only a little English. They asked him about this and he said, “He listen!”

  14. Thirty years ago so this is safe to say, Mom and I were having breakfast in a motel on the coast of NC in an area with lots of military bases. The restaurant was full of military officers from various branches, and they were discussing things we shouldn’t be hearing. Mom mouthed “wow,” and I nodded. We stayed quiet, ate our food, and got the heck out of there.

    • Great story, Marilynn. It’s surprising that the officers were discussing such important information. I would have kept my head down and gotten out of there quickly, also. Did any of them look at you as you were leaving?

      A relative always says, when we ask things we shouldn’t, “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”

      I’m glad you retreated from that situation unscathed.

      Thanks for participating today.

  15. One summer years ago, my husband and I pulled into a convenience store parking lot. While my husband was inside getting us snacks, a car pulled up next to us. The people in the car hailed a rather scuzzy passerby (it was that part of town) and asked if he knew where they could score some good dope. The passerby said he had some stuff. They negotiated a price, and he told them to follow him while he walked home as he only lived a few blocks away. None of them seemed the least concerned that I was sitting there three feet away with the car window down, hearing every word. As the car pulled out, I wrote down the license number. Then I went to the phone box beside the store door and reported what I’d heard to the cops.

    Since the pandemic, I’m still not comfortable eating in restaurants. My eavesdropping happens in checkout lines at the grocery and garden stores. I hear enough there that I’m not really interested in a spiffy device to hear more.

    • Very interesting story, KS. It is surprising that the people in the car didn’t think it was an issue that you could hear what was going on. Your mention of the eavesdropping in the grocery checkout line, reminded me that no one has noted all the conversations at the hair stylist salons. Maybe one doesn’t have to eavesdrop there. It’s just a big group discussion.

      Thanks for participating, and stay safe!

  16. I just returned from eavesdropping and tinkering with parts for my watering system. From there I moved on to Starbucks, and I eavesdropped again. I’ve been an observer all my life, so I have a tendency to listen to what other people are saying. Occasionally I butt in and offer advice, like at the Home Depot, lol .

    • Good for you, Linda. I like to listen in when I’m at Lowes or a lawn and garden store. You might learn a new trick.

      Being a life-long observer has probably served you well with your writing. Keep “listening,” and have a wonderful weekend.

  17. My eavesdropping consists of reading well crafted stories and thinking about what people say to each other when their guard is down. We don’t get out and spend much time where people gather so I have to rely on reading, podcasts and what Ivan finds for me.
    Ivan is my desktop computer. I recollect a writer who called his computer Lois Lane, and he started his day with “What’s up, Lois?” and she says “So what? Why?” and another story starts.

    The motto “Loose Lips Sink Ships” was never more true. The greatest boon to law enforcement is that people just cannot keep their mouths shut. What is it about jail phones?

    Quite off topic, I’m reading Damon Knight’s “Creating Short Fiction” and in it he says that in his late twenties he had an idea for a story about a computer that could write fiction. That places the idea in the middle 1950s. Then, he picked up the idea twenty years later ( I reckon in the 1970s) and posited a society that would have to exist around this central idea of a story writing computer, which had become an emblem of an alienated dehumanized plastic society in which everything spontaneous had been suppressed, starting with certain ethnic groups who were perceived as too natural. The story became “Down There”.

    So. Did Knight predict ChatGPT and AI fifty years ago?

    • Good question about Knight and ChatGPT. Why don’t you ask ChatGPT? Maybe Knight is his grandfather. Hmm.

      Good point about reading well crafted stories to study dialogue. Any titles you would like to recommend?

      Thanks for participating. Great comments!

    • The greatest boon to law enforcement is that people just cannot keep their mouths shut.

      People have an innate need to make their deepest selves known to others. Thus are born intimate conversations with strangers, art & poetry (which are the same thing as the foregoing), and confession, I’ve mentioned before Edgar Allen Poe’s story, “The Imp of the Perverse,” about a part of our mind that is eager to reveal what we most wish to conceal. Poe’s story predates Freud’s eponymous slips by 56 years. They should rightfully be called Poevian slips.

  18. If I may… I grew up as an airline brat, and spent more than my fair share of time waiting and changing gates when riding standby… sometimes a whole day, having to come back the next to get wherever we were going…

    My brother and sister and I would eavesdrop and “people-watch” (visual eavesdropping?), whenever what we were reading got boring… and that’s where I picked up verbal cues and dialog between waiting passengers, gossiping flight crewmembers, gate agents and the like… as well as how people physically reacted to the joyful gate arrivals (yes, I’m that old), disappointing weather delay announcements, and journey ending trudges to or from baggage claim…

    My day job here in the safety net hospital in Atlanta has many similar “opportunities” – being mindful of HIPPA restrictions – listen in and look over folks, though sometimes that can be even more personal and painful… plus, there’s enough elevator travel with and without cellphone conversations to complete one’s doctorate in dialogue and dialect…

    • Very interesting, George. I agree with you. When people are in a health care system, they often open up to others about things they would never say otherwise.

      In my practice of 40 years, I did a procedure for men under Valium and local anesthesia. It’s amazing the stories men will tell when the Valium kicks in and the local is working. I kept a folder for several years about some of the most unusual hobbies. I need to pull that out and reread those stories.

      Interesting what you learned at the airport. Another great place where there is a lot of talking going on in crowded spaces, and a lot of phone conversations. If it weren’t for all the security checks, an airport would be a good place to visit for eavesdropping.

      Thanks for sharing your experience!

  19. Late to the party…

    The research results vis-a-vis phone conversations… The same principles apply to Act first, explain later, and why it’s such powerful advice. As curious creatures, we wonder about the unknown — the other caller or the missing parts of the story.

    • Thanks for adding some edification to our party today, Sue. Good points. The article on phone conversations referred to an analogy on the structure of musical compositions, hinting at a note, chord, or pattern in the beginning, then teasing around it, never revealing it again until the finale.

      You’re never late. Thanks for your participation and great point on suspense in writing. Have a great week!

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