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How to Master Eavesdropping — You Know You Want To

The word eavesdrop has an interesting etymology.

It comes from a part of a house.

When it rains, water drips (or drops) off the eaves of a roof. That line was called an “eavesdrop.” People who stand where the water drops off the roof are close enough to hear what goes on inside the home — and so those people were called “eavesdroppers.”

And from there, the verb was born.

I see two kinds of eavesdropping:


Intentional Eavesdropping is sneaking around and spying like the Cardinals in the painting above. This is the unethical kind of eavesdropping — especially when the speakers make every effort to keep their conversation confidential.

This article is not about that kind of eavesdropping.


The other kind of eavesdropping is what I call Accidental Eavesdropping. It’s more like overhearing, because there’s no ill intent.

This is when people are talking in public areas loud enough for others to hear. In fact, it would be hard to not eavesdrop in these situations.

As a writer, I happen to love accidental eavesdropping.

Truth be told, I love intentional accidental eavesdropping.

Let me explain.

Why I Love Intentional Accidental Eavesdropping

Accidental eavesdropping gives writers and novelists a peek into real-life — outside their own lives. It gives writers new points of view and new ideas.

As I write — holed up in my office and shut out from the world—I notice that my characters start to act and sound alike. That’s not my intent. But it can happen.

And when there’s no difference in their characters, their interactions can turn vanilla.

They need contrasting textures.

They need a variety of depths.

They need diverging dimensions.

When they start to sound alike to me, I know it’s time to accidentally eavesdrop.

I need to get out of the house and hear what other people are thinking, see what they are doing, and understand how they are living their lives. I need to hear goals that would never cross my mind. I need to hear what challenges life is throwing their way.

In fact, I long to hear opinions that make me bristle, experiences that make me balk, and lifestyles that make me blush.

The stories and language and emotions are raw, not guarded.

That. Is. Rich.

When I accidentally eavesdrop, I gather authenticity.

Accidental eavesdropping reveals life.

And observing contrasts to my own life inspires my creativity.

Writers crave this.

So I intentionally accidentally eavesdrop.

Here’s One of My Experiences

A co-worker invited me to lunch one day. I told her that I had planned to eavesdrop over lunch because I was developing a character for my novel. I needed inspiration.

She grew excited and said, “I know the perfect place to eavesdrop. It neverdisappoints. It attracts an eclectic array of people.”

So we went to the cafe with the intention of accidentally eavesdropping, rather than talking to each other.

We ordered our lunch and then selected a table sandwiched in the middle of the cafe. Sure enough, two women sat at a table next to ours.

One of the women — whose voice, by the way, boomed like a bullhorn — started the conversation: “So, did you hear? I fired Bill.”

My heart soared.

My co-worker’s eyes lit up as if to say, “See! I told you! It never disappoints.”


5 Rules to Master Intentional Accidental Eavesdropping

If you want to observe life through intentional accidental eavesdropping, you need to follow some rules:

1. Be Sensitive

When people really want privacy, they make an effort to separate themselves from others — they sit in the corner, they speak in hushed whispers, they halt the conversation when others pass by.

Respect that.

These are people. Their lives are real. Their lives have meaning. And some things are meant to remain private.

But when they are open with their words — like the gal in the cafe who fired Bill — then you can freely observe.

2. Place Yourself Where People Come Together

My favorite places to eavesdrop are restaurants, cafes, airplanes, airports, elevators, cubicles, ball games, and on public transportation.

These places naturally bring strangers within close proximity of each other.

In these situations, crowds and noise actually work to your advantage.

Think about it… if you go into a cafe where only a couple of folks are dining, they probably won’t speak loudly. It’s because the silence makes them self-conscious.

Contrast that with a crowded bar. People speak pretty loudly.

Go where people have gathered. People talk more freely when more people are talking.

Seek out places where the crowd’s lifestyle is very different from yours.

And then brace yourself!

You’re about to hear some good stuff.

I have learned that the greater the contrast between the you and crowd, the more compelling the insights.

Image: Toa Heftiba

Image: Toa Heftiba

3. Observe Everything, But Don’t Be Obvious

Accidental eavesdropping should be like watching a focus group from behind the glass. People are aware of your presence. But they shouldn’t be reminded of your presence.

If they perceive you are eavesdropping, the opportunity is lost.

Don’t react to what they say. Or they will know you are listening.

If they tell a joke, don’t laugh.

If they say something shocking, don’t gasp.

Which leads to the next rule…

4. Blend In

Do something else as you listen.

Wear earbuds, but without playing any sound.

Take notes in a notebook.

Pretend to read a newspaper or book.

The world’s current obsession with smartphones can really work to your advantage! No one will think anything of you if you’re playing a game on your phone.

5. Don’t Take the Best Spot

Position yourself close to a desirable location — in the restaurant, in the elevator. You want to be in the table next to the best table.

People want the best table — the one with the view, the one by the window. If you’re in the table next to that sweet spot, people will sit near you even if the place isn’t crowded.

And that gives you opportunity.

Consider This as a Form of Research

People are fascinating.

You’re there to observe. To learn. To be inspired.

You’re soaking up interactions, reactions, language, body language, quirks, demeanor, stories.

You’re in for a rich education.

And the next time you’re in a restaurant, look around. You might see me studying a Sudoku puzzle… or so it would seem.

Remember: In the iconic words from the TV show Frasier,

“I’m listening.”

Sometimes You Need a Little Creativity Boost

My free eBook might just help:

5 Exercises that Will Make You 10 Times More Creative

I use these exercises to keep the juices flowing — in myself and in my clients. (I am a marketing consultant, after all.)

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