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T. Jefferson Parker famously called writers "the secretaries of life" and I ascribe to that. Great fun sometimes, sometimes not, but often quite interesting to learn what's in people's heads - with the exception of loudly spouted politics, that is.

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I admire Mr. Parker and especially like the idea of being a "secretary of life," or at least an interpreter. Thanks for this, PJ!

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I love eavesdropping and I'm way too good at it. My husband Russel has learned to sit patiently when I have caught a particularly good thread of conversation on a bus or in a crowded diner.

My favorite eavesdropping story is a modern one. Russel and I were in a big box store when then young woman on her cell phone in the next aisle started complaining, loud enough so that we could both easily hear her, about people knowing she was pregnant when she hadn't told them.

When we progressed into that aisle she was hanging up in a huff. Embarrassed, I slipped by her cart, avoiding her eyes, only to hear Russel offer her his congratulations!

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I'm dying to know what her reaction was to Russel's congratulations! Or did you escape from the scene so fast you couldn't watch/listen? On the other hand, she had to know she could be heard...everyone seems to raise their voices while talking on the phone.

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I’m a huge fan of eavesdropping. If it’s wrong, I don’t want to be right. I do constantly and it always influences my writing. Sometimes I’ll take a line or a scene and put it into some fiction. Other times, I’ll just post a quick overheard vignette. When I’m out in public, I even have a short hand. I tell my wife “I’m working.” That way, when we’re at Target or something and I wander off to eavesdrop, she knows what I’m up to. Actually, sometimes I don’t even have to say it. She’ll ask “are you working?” or we’ll just exchange a look. I used to jot these gems down in a notebook, but these days I always have my phone handy, and it’s a perfect tool for taking notes on the sly.

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I love it. I am not eavesdropping from here on out, I'm working. Maybe that way, I'll get better at it.

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Eavesdropping is considered rude because you’re involving yourself where you’re not invited. In general, I’d agree and try not to tune into to others’ conversations. Some people are quite loud and I’d say I overhear them, rather than eavesdrop. Here’s something I overheard on a lunchtime walk:

“They’re going to see how awful we are at it…”

I have no context and I didn’t hear the rest, but I can certainly make something of that snippet. Maybe a comedic office scheme? If I’ve been listening a bit longer, I usually chime in or smile to acknowledge that I’ve heard them. It’s my way of dispelling the awkwardness I feel about having listened in. VERY COMPLICATED. 🤭

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Yes, it can be complicated. I never cease to be amazed, though, how easy people make it to overhear them. There is a kind of unwritten rule that if I act invisible, they don't have to acknowledge me or the idea that I can hear every word they are saying. I cling to that.

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It’s funny you say that because some people are exhibitionists and subconsciously want others to hear.

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Well, since the arrival of cellphones, I feel as though I am forced to hear other’s conversations. I cannot even grocery shop without someone with Bluetooth ear buds yammering on about whatever. The other day it was about their uterus “problems.” I scurried away as fast as I could. I long for the old days when you really had to lean in to hear such nonsense. Or use a glass on the wall. Lol. Sometimes, I wear my own earbuds to listen to music to block them out.

God I miss phone booths.

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This is true. Even weirder to me is when I pass a car in a parking lot and they are talking on their hands free phone which uses bluetooth and is piped through the speakers in their car. The entire conversation is essentially broadcasting to all who park or walk within fifty feet of the car.

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Jan 14, 2023Liked by Elizabeth Marro

If you don't want to be heard then speak softly and be aware of your surroundings.

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I rarely do either.

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I am with Chevanne. I overhear still despite my age (78) and being a little deaf. I am a café and bus person - great places to overhear, the former sometimes quite intimate conversations, almost exclusively women, and they inspire a good few of my paperbagstories on substack,. Talk in public is fair game. Otherwise no. Robert 🐰 P.S. ON A BUS INTO NOTTINGHAM RECENTLY, two women in their sixties in front of me and one says: ‘When he told me he couldn’t do it anymore I told him to find me someone who could.’ There is a paperbagstory coming...

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It would be a sin not to use that line for something...

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Eavesdropping was easier for me before my hearing ability declined. My latest hearing test showed me getting words correct only 64% of the time -- sitting in front of my speaking daughter. But, context is everything! If I can hear enough to know the context, I can sort it out. I've been eavesdropping all my life, perhaps that is why I'm told I'm good at dialogue. lol

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Well, they say the best way to learn to write dialogue is to listen to how people really talk. With hearing loss, I imagine that context plus imagination plus your insights gained from years of eavesdropping more than make up for the snippets you miss.

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I love to eavesdrop. It is so second nature I don't even consider whether it is okay or not. How else can we disocver and savor the range of human behavior :)

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I worked for the phone company. Every year we had to sign a Secrecy of Communications stating that if we heard anything in the course of our normal work would remain confidential. We weren't even allowed to tell who had extension phones.

Rural areas had ten party lines. There were also four and two party lines. People regularly eavesdropped on each other as part of the culture.

But when my personal home phone had some problems, I listened in without too much guilt.

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Party lines! We had one for a long time when we first moved to northern NH. Folks had no problem offering their two cents when they heard someone talking about a problem, recipe, the weather or just about anything. But they also showed such respect for each other and got off the line when people needed to make important calls. There were ground rules and everyone understood them.

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I do it. I encourage other writers to do it. We talk about how to do it surreptitiously--taking notes. I recently wrote about a woman who wouldn't waste her eavesdropping time on mundane conversations. That's not me, I'm always at the ready. Sometimes the gems may not be the actual dialogue, but the interaction of those talking—watching how people gesture, facial expressions, what happens during the silence. You know...the kind of observing we writers can't help but do. This is a fun Spark, Betsy. Thanks.

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Thanks, Judy. Yes, you are exactly right. That little scene at the dog park was so much more than what I overheard. I saw those women sitting in their little semi circle, holding their dogs, toughing it out together, reassuring each other in their way but also staring into the abyss a bit. All of it got to me.

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I did look and listen from a safe distance. She looked shocked but also giggled. It is funny how some people think there's a magic box around them when they are talking on a cell phone.

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