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What We Learn About Ourselves and Each Other When We Eavesdrop

Many consider eavesdropping an invasion of privacy, and that may be true, but is it also a way for us to gain insight into others and stay connected to what's going on around us?

When I was little, I loved riding in the backseat of my parents’ car at night, catching glimpses of other people’s lives through their warm, glowing windows. I liked to imagine the families inside and what the rooms I couldn’t see looked like. I considered how their families’ routines and traditions might differ—or be similar—to mine. It was like opening up a book and spending time in another world—albeit for just a moment.

Catching snippets of overheard conversation is a lot like those glimpses into night windows, though the overheard is naturally funnier, snarkier, or more absurd. Strangers become less idealized and more relatable. “To overhear is human,” says illustrator and professional eavesdropper Oslo Davis in his book, Overheard: The Art of Eavesdropping. Whether we want to admit it or not, it’s something we all do and have been doing since time immemorial. Eavesdropping has its roots in survival; it was once a way to find food sources and anticipate danger. There’s even evidence that apes and plants do it!

In modern human times, it’s an early skill we learn as we spy on the adults around us. As we get older, it can provide a different kind of safety net than the one our ancestors required such as helping us determine if a partner is cheating or if a “friend” is gossiping or lying to us. And when it comes to eavesdropping on strangers, it can be a fun escape—like a little vacation from our lives into someone else’s experience.

It can even be therapeutic. A friend recently launched a Twitter account where she reports the absurd and hilarious things she overhears throughout her day at the mall. “[It’s] my way of finding humor in a pretty depressing retail situation. I need to be able to laugh at the stupidity I regularly hear, instead of feeling angry and stuck all the time.”

It’s also a great equalizer. After all, overhearing the absurd, tacky, or snarky things others say when they think they’re in private actually helps connect us with one another. Hearing a complete stranger express something we’ve thought makes us feel less alone, less strange. When we believe we are only speaking to someone who knows us well, we let our guard down. When we overhear someone and catch them without their public façade—it’s oddly comforting, isn’t it? Says Davis of his decade spent eavesdropping and illustrating the best “overheards,” “I’ve learned how a wry comment, a snarky aside, a witty retort or a bruising rejoinder can reveal a deeper humanness in a stranger I would normally not think twice about. The little stuff people say speaks volumes.”

Eavesdropping is also a unique way to practice mindfulness, as we focus on tuning in instead of tuning out during the routines of daily living. Whether we’re waiting in line at the coffee shop, packed like a sardine into a crowded train, or trawling the aisles at the grocery store, we can tune into others and find humor and even joy in the otherwise mundane. In an age where we’re at once more connected yet more polarized than ever, tapping into the humanity of others around us may help us better understand each other—and ourselves.

Take an “overheard” vacation with Oslo Davis’s brilliant collection of single panel comics, Overheard: The Art of Eavesdropping, packed with the best embarrassingly and deliciously true snippets.





Photo Credit: Voronin76/Shutterstock


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