Deliver me from inanity, from the idiotic, senseless, banal conversations that people engage in these days. A born eavesdropper (I prefer the term ‘naturally curious’ to ‘nosey’), I am suffering for my art. And it is an art. To sit and listen in to someone else’s conversation all the while appearing as though I don’t understand a word takes a certain skill. To compose my features so that nothing registers, no matter what I overhear, takes talent. The effort it takes to harness that natural reflex to interject with an opinion has released many a holy soul from purgatory. Yes, I am suffering; suffering to the point of resigning my membership of the International Eavesdropping Fraternity. I’m on the brink of handing back my membership card and cancelling my annual dues. Why? Because there is simply nothing worth listening to any more.
While sitting at Ferihegy Airport having a coffee, waiting to board a flight to Kiev recently, this British couple stood up from the table beside me.
‘I’m going to stretch my legs’, she says.
‘Ok’, he says.
‘Well, we’ve been sat in the taxi coming here, and that took nearly an hour. And we’re going to be sat on the plane for nearly three hours. And then we’ll be sat on the train. And then we’ll be sat in the car going home. So I need to stretch my legs.’
Bad grammar aside, who cares? Hubby obviously didn’t need it pointed out – he would be sat with her every tortuous inch of the way. I certainly didn’t need an explanation for such a simple intention. Have a heart, lady…
On the flight itself, I sat in front of a youngish North American couple – they seemed thrown together more by chance than by design so I’m using ‘couple’ here in its most literal sense. They were on their way to Tel Aviv. The cabin steward was going through the usual safety instructions and was showing us how to fasten our seatbelts (really – is there anyone left in the world who doesn’t know how to do this?). Ms North America pipes up:
‘I was on a flight once and this big guy who was sitting beside me mistakenly strapped his belt into mine.’
‘Really?’ asked her companion, a little incredulously. ‘Really?’ I thought… thinking that this opener had the hallmark of an interesting anecdote that might even be worth writing about. (Was I was right, or what?)
‘Yeah’, she replied.
That’s it? That’s all? ‘Yeah!’ God Lord, woman, where’s your imagination? Where’s your follow-through? That’s all you can come up with? ‘Yeah!’
Much more interesting are the foreign-language conversations that I earwig on. To get any sense of meaning from those, I have to position myself so that I can glance surreptitiously at the speakers. After all, apparently only 7% of our communication is done through words – the other 93% is tone, inflection, body language, all those word-free ways in which we get our message across. So, strictly speaking, it’s not necessary to understand the language in order to understand the message. The Italians are best – arms waving madly at what could be anything from a description of a terrible tragedy to an account of a recent shopping trip to Milan. Next in line, for my money, are the Russians where tone and inflection are often so incongruent with the message that couples might equally be declaring undying love and affection as threatening to leave and take the fur coats with them.
One of the consummate joys of eavesdropping on a foreign-language conversation is that I can make it up as I go along. And if it’s Hungarian, so much the better. I get to fill in the blanks between the few words I recognise and take it from there. My eavesdropping world is an anthology of short stories just waiting to be written.
‘How rude’, I hear some of you say. Well, perhaps I shouldn’t be listening in to other people’s conversations. And if they spoke sotto voce, I probably wouldn’t be bothered. But plugged into iPods and living in our stereophonic worlds, we have lost our ability to speak normally. With social media bringing a whole new meaning to sharing, we’re losing the run of ourselves. And, as American novelist Thornton Wilder put it: ‘There’s nothing like eavesdropping to show you that the world outside your head is different from the world inside your head.’
In my ideal word, people would only speak when they had something to say, something of meaning, something that other people needed or wanted to hear. Imagine the quiet, the calm, the peace. Imagine, too, how we would really listen to each other instead of tuning out, how we would value each other’s interventions, and how conversation would take on new meaning. Just imagine!
First published in the Budapest Times 12 March 2011