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Why I can't help being an eavesdropper - and why you're one too

Author Leo Benedictus on the repercussions of secret listening

Why I can't help being an eavesdropper - and why you're one too
05 April 2018

I am busy working when a man boards my train at Gatwick Airport. Bearded, about 35, he is on the phone to a friend. Yeah, he’s just landed. He and Reg have broken up. For good this time. Well, they’d had an understanding that the relationship was open. That meant other people were allowed, but no one regular.

I’m not working any more. Now I’m pretending to work. And you know Reg. He’s wonderful but he worries. Jealousy is the problem. He asks so many questions. Checks texts. Didn’t act trustingly in general. He told Reg look, there’s nothing going on, nothing regular, but Reg could not be calmed. After a while there’s only so much you can take. Exactly.

I’m sad for both of them. I keep listening. I look like I’m checking emails or something. In fact I’m tapping at my laptop aimlessly. They’ll stay friends, the bearded man and Reg. The rest is past. Reg is devastated, sadly. He has no one else lined up. The bearded man? Well, there is someone sort of regular beginning. He doesn’t want to talk it up too much. They’ll see where it goes. The conversation moves on, but I can’t move with it. Oh Reg, I keep thinking to myself. Oh Reg, you were right!

I eavesdrop. So do you. Sometimes we can’t help it. Secret listening is too delicious to resist, no matter what’s being said. Mobile phones in particular make public transport a paradise for eavesdroppers like ourselves. Sometimes a hell, when you get trapped in other people’s conversations.

I’m writing this article on buses and trains, in pubs and cafés.

On a different train I overhear a rail engineer discussing his colleagues on the way to a meeting in Croydon. It is a dull discussion. He and his friend just lengthily agree that their colleagues are all inadequate.

I listen anyway. I can’t do anything else until Croydon comes.

Some people want to be listened to, I think. There is a woman of about 60 in the pub today. She speaks so loudly, and about such private matters, that she must be determined to have her feelings heard by everyone. I’m sure she succeeds. And to be fair, she provides more drama than the engineers.

She begins with her painful chest symptoms that she insists are not important, then describes them to a male relative at length. Something, I don’t catch what, is “full of mucous, full of it”. She’s been to the hospital and come away dissatisfied. “It’s because of all the bloody foreigners,” she says. “I’m sorry, but it’s true.” I don’t believe it’s true, or that she’s sorry, but we all get the message. She is unhappy and in pain.

Soon the real trouble comes out. There’s been a disputed will. “I’m only getting 10 grand from a million-pound house,” the woman says. Although she takes great trouble to explain that this is not about the money. “She is so selfish, my sister… Is it worth having a family, with what I’m going through? I don’t want to have another breakdown like I did.” I hope she doesn’t have one either, especially nearby.

Sometimes it’s looking that I can’t resist. As I write this part of the article, a middle-aged woman sits beside me on the train watching Brazilian street-dance instruction videos on her phone. I expect they are her entertainment on long journeys.

It is hard to imagine her carrying the instructions out, although she reviews the moves methodically. They distract her from my screen at least, which I’ve turned towards the window while I type. Unless she can read the reflection backwards. No doubt she’d be curious too, if she got the chance.

This is eavesdropping by eye, and again it can be forced on you. Clicking reply instead of forward on an email is the classic method.

I expect most people live through this nightmare at least once during their lives. The best example that I know concerns a friend of mine who, early in her consulting career, received an email from a client she didn’t like. She’d been talking to a colleague about him, and there the client was again, with more unreasonable demands. Meaning to forward the message as evidence to her colleague, with her own quick comment, she instead mistakenly replied to the client with one word: “Twat.” After a moment of horror, she emailed again to apologise, insisting she’d meant to reply to a friend.

Technology plays its part, but it can’t take all the blame. I’ve done worse with pen and ink. Twice, that I know of. Covering the Edinburgh Festival 14 years ago, I interviewed Russell Brand, then a lowly E4 presenter. 

What did you write about me?”

He’d been spotted by a girl I was talking to, who brought him over to me. Not admiring Brand’s work, nor being quite sure that I knew who he was, I’d written on my pad beneath his name “prick off the telly”. 

It wasn’t a considered opinion. Mainly I think I resented him for being more famous than I was. Brand arrived and sat on my table. Not at it. On it, crossed-legged. We chatted amicably. I told him about the difficulty of writing. He told me the same about heroin. 

Then he glanced at my pad. “What do you mean, ‘that prick off the telly’?” he asked, pointing. He looked hurt. I’m ashamed to say that I told him it wasn’t my personal view, but a quote from the girl who’d fetched him. That’s why I’d written it down. I don’t know whether he believed me, or which version of the truth he would have preferred.

The other time was worse. Much worse. I was 18 and living in Paris. I worked in a bar at night and during the day hung around in a flat near Place de Clichy, which I rented with three other English teenagers I hardly knew. We got along patchily. On what must have been a bad day, I wrote a long letter to a friend in London explaining my grievances. Being bored, and a frustrated writer, I described my flatmates in detail.

I wrote about how they looked and what they said. I talked about them like museum specimens. Each was an example of this defect, that weakness. I was as cruel and gleeful as I could be. Completing the letter took two days.

Months later, I discovered that my flatmates had read it while I was out at work that night. All of it, and all of them. I’d left the letter on a shared table and they’d passed it around, page by page. There were terrible scenes, apparently. Their families discussed the practicality of my eviction. A born novelist, sensitive to subtle changes in behaviour,

I noticed nothing. I only found out when one flatmate, Catriona, told me what had happened, when we were again getting on.

By then it was too late to say that my words exaggerated how I’d felt, that my feelings had changed, that they’d been fleeting feelings anyway. I said it all regardless, knowing I sounded false. They’d seen what they thought was the truth of me, and what I thought was the truth of them. It’s what makes eavesdropping irresistible. Just knowing that people have private conversations, written or spoken, feeds a fear that in public they are mostly pretending. And almost entirely, on social media. It’s not easy to dismiss the fear, because of all the pretending we know we do ourselves. What do other people really think? That question makes obsessive eavesdroppers of us all.

Worse, it makes us imagine that anything we learn covertly must be true. I did write all those nasty things about my flatmates, but I didn’t believe them. I was irritated, and bored, and trying to compose an entertaining letter for my friend. I did write on my pad that Russell Brand was a prick, but if I’d tried to justify it to myself, knowing nothing about him, I would have failed. That’s why I didn’t try to justify it. Thinking he was a prick was easier, and more fun. If he’d been able to spy on my thoughts more deeply, and not just read my pad, he would have known that. But saying it, I would never be believed.

On today’s train, the man in front of me spends nearly the whole journey exchanging emails with workmates whose slackness appals him. His large phone screen is easy to read, but he is too absorbed to notice anybody looking. He phrases his replies with care, but his workmates are not in the mood for taking hints. I’m right behind him, in both senses. When at last he gets a message from an office ally, his feelings pour out. “The way that the support team have behaved is disgusting!” he writes. “It feels like you and me are the only ones living our corporate values.” Meanwhile his slack workmates are exchanging their own emails, I’m sure. I hope he never sees them.

See Leo Benedictus at our next Book & Beer Club

We’ll warn you now: Benedictus’s latest book – a psychopathic stalker’s journal – is pitch black. The stuff of nightmares. You can hear how he channelled the character at ShortList’s next Beer & Book Club, in association with Faber & Faber. 

It’s taking place at the The Yorkshire Grey, 2 Theobalds Rd, London WC1 on 17 April at 6.30pm. 

Tickets are £10: for that, as well as entry, you’ll receive a copy of Consent and a beer on arrival.

To book tickets, visit

(Main illustration: Alex Jenkins, other image: Getty)