Why Do We Love To Eavesdrop On Strangers?

Your headphones are in, but they aren't on. 

“We have been eavesdropping for as long as recorded history has existed,” says John Locke, professor of linguistics in the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences at Lehman College and a professor of language science at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. He also authored Eavesdropping: An Intimate History, and says that there is no joke, “every reason to believe that the great apes eavesdropped, that almost all animals eavesdrop and that even plants eavesdrop.” 

“Eavesdropping was an essential and necessary aspect of life when our ancestors were living in the wilderness without any kind of protection,” he tells CUNY Edu. “When someone had food, they had to share it. Human beings have always been capable of being selfish, so hoarding was possible and if there was hoarding, it was frequently observed and gossiped into extinction with social reprisals for those who failed or refused to share. Today, the benefits are different. We are safer when we know what’s going on next door and our neighbors may be safer because we know what’s going on next door.

“When we use our senses to explore the inner life of another person, we remain who we are. We stand on the periphery of their life, project ourselves into it, probably take things from it and import those things into our own life. There is an illegal thrill that comes with that kind of an experience—it is perceptual trespassing.”

But what are the rules when it comes to eavesdropping? Most of us love to do it, but when does it become intrusive? Etiquette expert Diane Gottsman says listening in is derived from our nature as humans. 

“It’s natural to be curious, so if someone is next to you and speaking loud enough they have to be aware everyone can hear,” she says. “It becomes intrusive when it’s serious information that’s confidential and you literally have to get closer to listen.”

Diane adds that “if their volume is in your space that’s fair game.”

“If you’re moving over to hear and then passing it on it’s inappropriate,” she says. “It’s not impolite to overhear, but it’s wrong to pass it on. You may want to let the person know, ‘I can can hear your conversation and you probably don’t want people to hear.’”

What you don’t have the right to do is walk over and add your two cents to the conversation, or use the eavesdrop info for your own gain.

“In your gut you know you’re when it’s the wrong thing,” she says. “You’re always using your best judgment, that’s your litmus test—is it going to hurt someone? Don’t take something someone told you and use it. Use integrity.”

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