By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY
David Smith has heard — or rather overheard — it
all while on planes, including the sexual details of a
stranger’s hookup at a business meeting.
“It feels like you’re eavesdropping, but in another
sense, you’re forced to share something that falls
under the heading of ‘too much information,’ ” says
Smith, 54, of Austin, a retired consultant and
frequent business traveler.
A century ago, when the first home phones were
“party lines” shared by neighbors, “worrying you
were being listened in on was a common feature of
American culture,” says sociologist Claude Fischer
of the University of California-Berkeley.
Oh, how times have changed.
Now, we’re not only unconcerned about overheard
phone calls, we purposely broadcast our personal
business to large groups of “friends” and “followers”
on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
SECRETS: Some people still keep a diary in age of
As a result, we’re fast becoming a nation of casual
eavesdroppers, where every day we tune in to a
constant stream of updates on what others are
saying and doing, from where they’re about to eat
lunch (complete with photos) to their conversations
All this sharing, some experts say, may be feeding a
tendency toward exhibitionism, and devaluing the
very privacy that earlier generations so desired.
But not everyone says the rise of widespread social
snooping is such a bad thing.
Eavesdropping is an “evolved human practice that is
natural and often beneficial,” says John Locke, a
linguistics professor at the City University of New
“We teach people they should mind their own
business,” he says, but “that’s extremely bad advice.
It’s dangerous because you won’t see the terrorist
next door making a bomb; you won’t see the kids
being abused, or the husband beating up a wife. If
there wasn’t any eavesdropping, if people minded
their own business and ignored what they saw and
heard, how would you prevent and how would you
Locke, author ofa new book, Eavesdropping: An
Intimate History, says apes keep an eye on each
other to maintain order, and we humans have
neighborhood watch programs.
But eavesdropping is more than just listening in. It’s
glancing over at someone else’s laptop screen to
see what they’re doing. It’s peering into an
apartment window as you walk by. It’s catching a
glimpse through a door that’s slightly ajar. It’s
trolling Facebook to see what your friends are
saying to others.
And yes, it’s a bit thrilling, he says. “There is
something quite tantalizing about this behavior.”
But is it really eavesdropping if they’re broadcasting
and we can’t help overhearing?
“I don’t regard it at all as me eavesdropping,” says
Etti Baranoff, who has overheard plenty of cellphone
conversations in 15 years of traveling twice a week
as an associate professor of insurance and finance
at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
“We think no matter where we are, we are in our own
living room, but we are not. We are walking with our
phones as if we are in our own homes.”
No keyholes needed
“It’s a generational and cultural change,” says W.
Keith Campbell, a professor of psychology at the
University of Georgia in Athens.
“That old image of sticking your ear to a keyhole —
we don’t need to do it anymore,” Campbell says.
“Our personal lives are much more open.”
What’s changed is that more private behavior, such
as personal phone calling, happens in public today,
says social psychologist Robert Kraut of Carnegie
Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
It may seem like eavesdropping, but the “victim” is
no longer the person being eavesdropped on, he
says — it’s “the overhearers, who can’t get away.
What had once been private behavior is now being
shoved in their face.”
Fischer, author of Made in America: A Social History
of American Culture and Character, says it’s ironic
that “a cellphone call overheard while walking down
the street is a throwback to (party lines) where
everybody knew everybody’s business.”
Whether eavesdropping is by choice or forced
makes a big difference, Locke says.
“If someone is speaking low, people will lean in the
direction of the message. But if people are speaking
loudly on a cellphone, they’ll back the other way. We
resent the fact they are broadcasting personal
information. We want the option of tuning in.”
This dichotomy is evident in new research on public
cellphone use. One study, to be presented to the
National Communication Association in November,
included 15- to 20-minute observations of 19,741
people using cellphones on a college campus from
2005 to 2008. Researcher Yi-Fan Chen of Old
Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., found that
mobile devices “blurred boundaries between public
and private spaces.” Her 2009 survey found
cellphones were most often used on the street,
observers said, “in a loud or annoying manner.”
Another study, in the journal Behaviour &
Information Technology in 2004, found cellphone
conversations “significantly more noticeable and
annoying than face-to-face” at the same volume.
“There is an idea in social psychology that you can
talk about intimate things to strangers because they
are not part of your network and are not considered
to be a risk,” Campbell says. “If you’re actually in
public and clearly don’t know people, it’s almost
seen as a private space.”
Some say today’s mix of easy information sharing
and celebrity-driven media culture is making us
more narcissistic. With Facebook and Twitter, we’re
more willing to showcase our lives for all who want
to look or listen. We can tell our friends our
innermost thoughts, but those who aren’t so close
“Go into an airport and you hear people talking in a
particularly loud voice, so people think they’re
important or have status. There’s a subset of people t
hat ties in more with narcissism and attention-
seeking that are using these channels to get
attention,” says Campbell, co-author of The
Gleaning new information
But the fact that you can watch or listen on social
networks without engaging “has some real
advantages,” says Keith Hampton, assistant
professor of communication at the University of
Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
“It’s exposure to little bits of information you would
never otherwise have had access to,” he says. “And
little bits of information can be really important. You
have access to new ideas, and not from very close
social ties that know what you know.”
Pop culture expert Richard Lachmann, a sociology
professor at the University at Albany, State University
of New York, says it’s not just the idea of privacy
that has changed. He believes the very nature of
eavesdropping is up for debate, since people are
willing to share more and more personal
“Everybody still has a notion of eavesdropping. It’s
somebody trying to hear something they haven’t
been invited to hear. What’s changing is what goes
in that category,” he says.
“It used to be people had a real long list of things
that were private and only heard by a few, and a
short list of things that would be public. For many
people, that’s moved from one list to another.”