Monday, November 16, 2015

Do You Snoop?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: We all admit to occasional eavesdropping, right? I mean, sometimes you just can't help it, if people are talking loudly at the next table or having an intimate conversation on their cell phone while standing next to you in the Starbucks queue. But what about VISUAL snooping? (Is there a word for that? Eyesdropping? And why is overhearing called "eavesdropping," anyway?)

I said a couple of weeks ago that I was never comfortable writing on planes, because I always felt like people were looking over my shoulder while I typed. Then it occurred to me that maybe this is because I am always looking over people's shoulders! I love walking down the aisle on a plane and peeking at what people are doing or reading. Boring spreadsheets on their laptops? Reading the latest airport blockbuster, or a tattered paperback? Working a crossword? Knitting? (A little side note: I see people reading paper books more often than books on tablets. Hmm.) I am so fascinated by the variety of interests.

But sometimes you are an inadvertent "eyesdropper." On my flight back from Raleigh a few weeks ago, a young woman across the aisle and one seat up was watching a movie on her tablet that must have been X-rated, or at least RRR. It made me so uncomfortable. Every time I looked up, there it was. Or, rather, there THEY were. And they were very naked and VERY athletic. I kept thinking, what if children walk up the aisle? And isn't she aware that other people can see her screen and might not be okay with the content? But that is maybe another topic, what we consider appropriate boundaries...

I check out what people are reading or writing in coffee shops, too, and on buses and trains. Can I call this writerly curiosity? Or am I just plain nosy?

What about you, REDS? Do you admit to having a peek at what people are doing in public places? (And to making up stories about them?)

HALLIE EPHRON: I'm always curious what other people are reading, and often if it's something I've heard of or read I'll say something. But really, what kind of an idiot runs an X-rated movie on her computer on a plane? Though it does give me an idea for a story... what if....

And though I try not to snoop, sometimes you just can't help it. My husband and I went to a fabulous sushi restaurant in Manhattan a few months ago, very hushed, bamboo walls, spectacular food, and the couple sitting at the table next to us... well they were practically DOING IT. I think they must have been drunk because it wasn't like they were in a private booth. We were so relieved when they left. Don't you love a restaurant with just enough ambient noise that it insulates you from actually hearing what's going on at the other tables, and lights low enough that you can't see unless you stare?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I think looking at what people are reading is not snooping. :-) Or looking at people's video screens on planes.  I mean, you can't help it. it's RESEARCH. It's all research.

And I always listen to people in restaurants--if they are causal enough to be loud enough. I once heard someone in a booth behind me say "And not just Quakers, Seminoles!" What could that possibly mean?

And as PROOF people expect it--how about the woman in the airport waiting area who said into her phone: "Oh, I can't hear you. Let me put you on speaker."

ON SPEAKER! So I figure that's fair game. And you know what they were talking about? One sentence--which I may have mentioned here before. Something like: "Well, then, she shouldn't have sent him the naked pictures."

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I love the phrase "eyesdropper," Debs! Yes, I do find myself spying on what people have on their screens as I walk up the aisle of a plane or train. I virtuously tell myself it's not being nosy, it's assessing the state of publishing today. I mean, you used to be able to tell what people were looking at because you could see the book or magazine in front of them, right?

I agree with everyone else: watching an explicit movie while in public - not only in public, but in a crowded airplane! - is just yucky. Even if the thought of offending other passengers doesn't move you, wouldn't you worry that you're extending an open invitation for the creepiest guys around to chat you up?

LUCY BURDETTE: Yeah, what's amazing is when it doesn't seem to occur to folks that people can hear or see. One night on the train coming home from New York City to CT, a woman flounced into our car, took out her cell phone, and called someone. She proceeded to ask the callee if she could come over. The conversation lasted at least 10 agonizing minutes as he turned her down multiple times. It must have been terribly humiliating, and all done in front of 30 or so complete strangers.

One other tangentially related story...I was flying to Paris for my semester abroad. I knew no one and was very lonely and anxious. When I returned to my seat from the bathroom, someone had put x-rated photos--a whole stack of them--in my train case. Boy howdy, is that an opening for a book or what? At the time, it was simply horrifying. And how to explain to my new roommates that I brought porn into the country??

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: In New York City, we all live cheek by jowl, and so eavesdropping and eyesdropping is not so much snooping as an occupational hazard. First of all, I LOVE to see what people are reading on the subway. E-readers have made this harder, but there are still enough fans of the paper book to make it fun. I've never had so many random strangers come up to me and compliment me on my reading as the summer I read Anna Karenina to and from work on the subway. It was  so lovely — people reminiscing about when they'd read the book and how it affected their lives... Less fun is the noise pollution. This past summer was FROM HELL as our neighbors had their apartment across from ours renovated. My favorite out of context overheard quote from my last book tour was at the Kansas City airport when some woman was having a really loud conversation. "AND THEY DIDN'T EVEN SERVE SALAD!" she told the person on the other end of the line, as well as the thirty or so folks waiting at the gate. No salad! The nerve!

RHYS BOWEN: one of the movies being offered on my last Virgin Atlantic flight was 50 Shades of Grey. I was horrified. Who would watch that with a stranger in the next seat? 

But I do eavesdrop on conversations sometimes. And hear occasional gems. I was swimming laps once and heard a woman in the next lane saying, "of course the gun belt weighs you down" so I had to swim at her speed to hear more! And don't people give away private details on cell phones? I confess to

snooping on what everyone else is reading. But if I find someone reading one of my books I hesitate to tell them so. A writer friend saw someone on a plane reading one of her books and said "I wrote that." The woman looked at her with disbelief and disgust and replied "no you didn't." So I keep quiet.

DEBS: My side are hurting from giggling! You couldn't make this stuff up. You really couldn't. If we put these snippets in books, no one would believe it...

So what about you, READERS? Do you, ahem, inadvertently look at what other people are reading/doing? Or listen to publicly broadcast conversations? 

(I dare anybody to top "Of course the gun belt weighs you down.")


  1. Although I love the "And they didn't even serve salad" line, I don't believe it's possible to top the "Of course the gun belt weighs you down" . . . that's just begging to be in a story!
    I can't imagine watching "Fifty Shades of Grey" anywhere, let alone on an airplane; shame on the lady who has no idea of what's appropriate to watch in a confined place where everyone can see what's on her computer screen.

    Generally I don't listen in to the conversations other folks are having unless, as has been mentioned, they're talking on the cell phone loud enough for the whole town to hear. Then, what else can you do?
    But I must admit that I do enjoy looking at book covers to see what everyone's reading . . . .

  2. But if you don't eavesdrop now and then you'll never have what I think of as that "New Yorker cartoon" moment, like this:

    (Haute couple sitting at symphony in row in front of you)

    She: Have you seen Paul since he got back?
    He: No.
    She: He looks great. He did the Machu Picchu thing.

    I can see exactly which cartoonist would do it, too...

  3. I've been laughing out loud, too. So funny. Of course my favorite is, "Not just Quakers, Seminoles!" And getting porn left in your train case, Roberta - that's really shocking. Who would have done that?

    I've been an eyesdropper AND eavesdropper from way back. At restaurants I have many times been accused by my dining partner of paying more attention to the neighboring table than to my own. And as a former linguist, if there's any kind of accent I always want to figure out what the person's native language is.

    Once when flying with my young sons - elementary age - in the era when one movie were shown on a screen everyone could see (and couldn't avoid seeing) I was horrified to see a movie with gun violence and some pretty adult "romantic" behavior. I wrote a furious letter to the airlines and got an apology. I would never have let my boys watch that kind of thing at home.

  4. And they didn't even serve salad! I am still laughing about that.

  5. Christopher, that is wonderful.. Send to the New Yorker instantly.

  6. Yes to all of the above--I like to watch people, listen in to conversations when they're going on all around you--cell phones, people conversing, I glance at tablets, phones, books, magazines that people are reading. I also like to observe body language--how a person walks, holds themselves, interacts with the person or people they are with. Sometimes it's not what people are saying or even if they're talking that's interesting.

  7. love to people watch! I was on the elliptical at the local rec center, getting my fill of "Love it or List It" when two female college students hit the treadmills and told the entire place every single intimate detail of a recent frat party. I know, I'm a mother, therefore I'm invisible.

  8. I never notice what's happening on other people's devices! Wow, I am missing out.

    I do eavesdrop, but then, half the time the people start talking to me. I'm like a life story receptacle. Inherited it from my mom and grandma. People told them EVERYTHING.

  9. This post was a great way to start a morning. Like Edith, my favorite is, "Not just Quakers, Seminoles!" I guffawed at that one.

    I am a great people watcher (and listener.) Depending upon the setting, I am also fairly unrestrained about just joining in a conversation -- especially in that situation where the conversation is loud enough that I can't help but overhear it.

  10. I forgot to mention the time I found myself awake at 4 in the morning (time change) in Las Vegas, walking the streets so I wouldn't wake my roommate, and overheard a spectacular expletive-laced street fight between a man and a woman. Wrote it all down and used it in the book I was writing.

  11. I'm with Hank, love, love, the machu picchu thing!

    Hallie, I bet I was that roommate!

    Edith, all I can think is the owner of the x-rated pix wanted to watch me go through them? so creepy. At this age, I would have called the flight attendant. But would he/she believe me??

  12. I think you pretty much have to look if someone is reading a book in public. How can you not want to know what others are reading?

    As for the X-rated film on the plane. First, EWWW! Second, I am glad to hear that it was a woman, because it at least reinforces the idea that all types of people have bad manners. Where were these folks raised?

    But yes, plot ideas do abound. Suppose you were walking up the aisle and saw on a fellow passengers tablet, a picture of your spouse, or your house, or someone who went missing years earlier?

  13. I will shamelessly eavesdrop and eyesdrop whenever I am out. To the point where the hubby merely rolls his eyes, and my kids just take a step away. Everything is grist for the writer's mill, right?

    "Of course the gun belt weighs you down." Love it.

    And I wonder if people don't realize they are broadcasting their cell conversations to the world or if they just don't care. Probably the latter.

  14. It used to be a game of watching people and then filling in what you think their life story was.
    Now the dialogue has been added to the mix.

    As to books on planes--I originally thought an e-reader was a great idea for travel because I could carry multiple books without multiple weight. But then I've had my reader battery run out a few too many times. Now I carry both paperbacks and the e-reader.

    Yes, please, use these snippets in your work!

  15. Seems I'm in good company, as I just can't help eavesdropping. My favorite: I was pumping gas at a self-serve station. A man at an adjacent pump was on his cell phone, asking someone if he could come over. He added "I have a couple of packages of condoms and a bottle of wine." I don't know what answer he received. (Should we put him in touch with the person Lucy overheard on the train?)

    I love the gun belt comment!

  16. Deb Romano, it strikes me that guy might have been the slightest bit over-confident. Or something. I mean, only one bottle of wine? Talk about great expectations!

    Doesn't it seem, at least in this country, that people tend to talk louder on cellphone than in regular conversation? In Europe the level of public conversation, including on a phone, seems so low to me that I wonder how they hear it at all.

    I guess that's good for us nosy people.

    While in the ER waiting room when I broke my foot a few years ago, I heard all kinds of drama. Until my daughter the former ER nurse pointed out the HIPPAA regs, I was all set to hang out there, as research and inspiration.

  17. Leah Garchik has made "eavesdropping" a part of her daily column in the San Francisco Chronicle and eventually wrote a book on Valentine's Day "overheards." Some classics:

    "I was looking for someone for just a really good time, but then I peeked at his iTunes playlist. He'd be serious baggage." From Leah's book, Real Life Romance.

    So as many have already commented, one or two of these "eyesdropping" could be the starting point of a Reds next novel.

    And, yes, I do "eyesdrop" and "earsdrop."


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  19. I think we should have a contest to write a story around "not just Quakers, Seminoles!" The possibilities make me giddy...

    And Kristopher, yes, what great--and chilling--ideas. I see a noir story coming from those.

    Karen's right, I think. Americans seem to shout into their cell phones. Why is that?

    Deb Romano, I think ONE package of condoms and TWO bottles of wine might have been a bit more persuasive... :-)

    Mary Sutton, I, too, was thrilled with the idea of traveling with a tablet filled with unlimited reading material. But now I always carry a tablet and a paperback. It's not just the battery life. So much of the time it's just so much easier to read a paperback. Your eyes get tired, you can close it for a minute. You can think, or look out the window, without the screen going blank. Best, of all, you can tuck a pb in your seat pocket without worrying about being out several hundred dollars if you forget it!

  20. Christopher - perfect New Yorker cartoon moment! For all of us who like evesdropping, there are also several delicious "Overheard" blogs and Facebook pages, including Overheard in New York, Overheard in Waitrose (posh London grocery) and for Hank, Overheard in the Newsroom.

  21. I love the term "eyesdropping," Debs, and I love all of the examples of that and eavesdropping that everyone's noted here. I think Rhys' overheard comment about the gun belt is priceless, and I had a hilarious visual playing in my mind of you frantically swimming to keep pace, Rhys. Probably because I'm heavily influenced by all the mysteries I read, I quickly attached to Susan's comment, "And they didn't even serve salad," a scene where a dinner party had been interrupted by a murder, and a disgruntled guest was focused on the lack of salad instead of a dead body. And, of course, "And not just Quakers, Seminoles" is one that I'll look for in a future book, Hank. The x-rated movie is disturbing. Too many eyes that shouldn't see that and too many people that just don't want to. Lucy, I bet you were really shocked to find the porn pictures in your case. Yikes!

    As I'm a bit hard of hearing, I don't really eavesdrop much, but I do eyesdrop on books wherever I go. I love to see what others are reading in airports and on the planes, and I've had some great conversations result from sharing reading. One of my favorite things to do when my husband was stationed at the Pentagon was to see what people were reading on the Metro, as it is a place rife with readers. My son always had a book on the Metro and became intensely involved with it. Of course, he had me to watch for our stops, as I was too busy book watching to read myself.

  22. Okay, loving these. And I happen to be an eyesdropper with a camera. Yes, I occasionlly snap a surrepticious shot of interesting characters.

    This one wasn't on purpose, however.... Last month I was in Venice, about to take the train back to Florence. It was about 7:00 pm; we had about half an hour until our train, so I sat in front of the Santa Lucia railway station enjoying the lights on the Grand Canal and experimenting with various exposures in the evening light. And then I realised I'd captured these touching pics...

  23. I loved the response, "No you didn't." Those negative people cheat themselves out of some great experiences . . .
    I can't imagine watching explicit stuff in public. I was embarrassed listening to the audio book of Stella Gets Her Groove Back, in my car, with the windows closed.
    My mom used to love to people-watch and was therefore seldom bored or impatient. "I'll just wait here and people-watch."

  24. Susan, those are lovely!!! I'd frame one!

  25. I usually carry a paperback with me when I'm going somewhere where I expect to wait, which is a lot of places these days. I'm happy when I see others reading while waiting too. Occasionally I'll ask if they're enjoying what they're reading, or something like that; only rarely do they immediately start sliding further away. I think readers expect other readers to be ok.

    I've been spending some time waiting for doctors lately and heard a few fellow waiters describing their issues in detail to their companions. Makes me glad I'm at the orthopedist and not the proctologist's office.

    When I read "Not just Quakers, Seminoles!" I figured it was a fan from one of those colleges that expects to be in the NCAA basketball tournament every year, and was dismayed to hear that both Penn and Florida State had been selected instead...