Things I Know 84: I like to listen in

A journalist is basically a chronicler, not an interpreter of events. Where else in society do you have the license to eavesdrop on so many different conversations as you have in journalism? Where else can you delve into the life of our times? I consider myself a fortunate man to have a forum for my curiosity.

– Bill Moyers quotes

Earlier this week, I sat at my usual counter at my local coffee shop working. I had done that thing where I put my earphones in, but in a moment of ADHD, forgot to turn on the music. This failed to occur to me until I noticed any work I’d intended on doing was being subverted by the part of my brain that was paying attention to the two people sitting one stool away from me at the same counter.

Realizing I was listening to their conversation, I should have cracked up The Low Anthem and re-doubled my working efforts.

I couldn’t.

I wanted to, but one of the guys mentioned the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the other brought up cognitive linguistics and I’ll could do was open up twitter and start sharing their conversation with the rest of the world.

As is the wont of brains, mine started filling in the unknown details of these two based on the non-verbal cues I could pick up through sideways glances. I decided they were on a first date…and tweeted it was the nerdiest first date ever.

One of the two mentioned Noam Chomsky and the other brought up “linguistic pragmatics” and I was off to Wikipedia.

You know that thing where you’re out with someone and they keep checking their phone or looking something up online when they’re supposed to be present with you?

That was me. Only, I was checking my phone and looking things up online when I wasn’t supposed to be present with these two.

I couldn’t help myself.

The conversation was too uncanny.

The one who I’d learned was a doctoral student brought up something he’d read in a book by the founder of Palm called…I couldn’t hear what he said. I knew the second word of the title was “intelligence” or “intelligent” so I went to Google, found the name of the founder of Palm and then loaded in Amazon’s search box.


After reading the reviews and continuing to listen to the conversation, I decided I was interested in the book. Two minutes after it had been mentioned, the book, On Intelligence was delivered to my Kindle.

I mean, if these two wildly interesting and intelligent guys thought it was worth reading, who was I to disagree?

Not only that, but the twitter conversation had ticked up and people from three other states were commenting on my play-by-play.

Just when someone suggested we all chip in to buy the couple a drink or a snack, the two packed up and headed off to their day.

I was left alone – the real kind of alone. No one else was sitting at the bar.

This is a recurring problem, this eavesdropping.

I tell myself it’s a combination of what remains from my days as a journalist and my listening training as an improviser.

In reality, I like to collect stories.

I also assume anyone sitting near me is stricken with the same malady and listening intently to my conversations in public places.

Sometimes, I catch myself using purposefully misleading or provocative language so they have a good story to tell their friends and family when I’ve gone. When I get up to use the restroom, I’ll close twitter on my web browser and pull up the homepage to The Economist so people will know how erudite and urbane I am when after I’ve asked them to watch my things while I’m away.

I get that Facebook, Tumblr and their ilk provide the same kind of eavesdropping in a virtual environment. From time to time, I’ll crawl through the profile of a friend of a friend to learn about their life. It’s just not the same.

Call me old fashioned or call me a purist. I don’t care. There’s no substitute for truly being there.


2 thoughts on “Things I Know 84: I like to listen in

  1. I loved hearing this story as it happened on Twitter. I think I became a journalist initially to have an outlet for the people watching and eavesdropping habit I couldn't seem to break. I love blogs, but there is no substitute for being in an airport and watching a person and imagining his life outside the airport, who he is, what he reads, if he secretly watches Dancing with the Stars, that he's a bird watching fanatic who hates eating tomatoes, etc. I let my mind wander and perceive with abandon. I'm happy I've gotten to a place in my life where I don't guilt myself for the nosiness. In fact, I think it's a fine-tuned skill. Back in the states where I was a business reporter, I got a membership to a gym where all the local old boys worked out and culled many a story from their chatter around the squat cage. It takes skill to eavesdrop while not looking like a creep. The sad part about leaving America and not knowing the language is that I often find myself in coffee shops (not THOSE coffee shops) hearing the chatter of Dutch and wishing so hard that I understood. I can feel myself turning back into a normal person that drowns out the conversation of others in public places. If I lived in Amsterdam, I'm sure I would hear English all the time, but I'm in the south and all I ever hear is Dutch. On the rare occasion I do hear English, my ears perk up and I can't hide my curiosity and interest. I'm desperate to talk to the person who has no idea how interested I am in them.

  2. Welcome to my life Mr. Chase. You should really ride the back car of the Blue Line… you will never run out of stories to collect then.

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