There’s a story I love about an English family who have invited some friends round for dinner. Early in the evening, the mother realises that there isn’t enough food. So she whispers the code “FHB” — Family Hold Back. The youngest son does his duty, requesting only a small portion and no vegetables.
This is all the opportunity that the mother needs. When dessert arrives – again too small — she turns to the poor boy and says, “Well, you didn’t eat your vegetables, so you certainly won’t be getting any pudding.”
The story has lots of valuable lessons. Always eat your vegetables. Never trust your parents. Double-check how many people are coming to your dinner parties. But for me, it’s really about eavesdropping. Think of the guests, straining to hear the mother’s intriguing whisper, failing to crack the code, wondering about the mother-son dynamic. They saw a truculent son and a firm but fair mother. If only they’d known!
In films, eavesdropping is joyously productive. A six-year-old overhears a murder plot. A taxi driver works out that Bear Stearns is about to collapse. But in real life, it is incredibly frustrating. At the crucial point in a blow-by-blow account of some riveting conflict, the speaker gets off the Tube; the waiter arrives to take your order; the background music switches from Schubert to Skepta. The jigsaw is never complete. As someone eloquently put it on Twitter a few months back, “Dear Couples Who Fight In Public, stop trying to whisper and would it kill you to include some backstory?”
On the day that the FT was sold to Nikkei, a key person accidentally pocket-dialled me. I was able to listen for several minutes to someone who was involved in the sale talking to advisers. And what did I find out before the line went dead? Absolutely nothing. Likewise, the other day I was subtly craning my neck towards a private conversation involving Boris Johnson — Boris Johnson! — and still got nothing. In fact, in nearly a decade as a journalist, overhearing hasn’t got me a single story.
Maybe it’s a technology thing. We’re so used to being able to Ctrl+F keywords that we’ve let our eardrums go rusty. Perhaps I’m intruding on the wrong people, or missing out on the key syllables. All I know is that enthusiastic eavesdropping has so far yielded nothing but detailed insights from rival football fans, which are the very reason that headphones were invented.
The only place I’ve overheard something shocking was in a doctor’s surgery — and I’ll be honest, it was plain awkward. (I suppose there was also the time that I had to call off an early morning tennis match with a distant acquaintance at the last minute and he texted back, “Cancelled! Can you come back to bed please? Xx”.)
Yes, some people probably think this is fair enough. A passion for eavesdropping might seem a bit unethical. The Swedish word for eavesdropper is tjuvlyssnare, which apparently means listen-thief.
I disagree. Judging by prime-time drama, Sweden still has more serious crimes to worry about. If eavesdropping is theft, it’s a very gentle kind compared with whatever Facebook and Google are doing to our innermost thoughts. It’s the difference between scrumping apples from next door’s garden and ransacking the whole house.
In fact, it’s like scrumping apples and then scattering the seeds on some neglected wasteland. Because the process does us all good. It helps the bus journey pass quicker. It stops us simply judging other passengers by appearances. It gives us random insights into the struggles of fellow citizens. And if we banned it, we’d need to rewrite the plot of just about every Shakespeare play.
So a plea to those talking in public — speak freely, speak loudly, use full names where possible. And please, no codes. We are listening. And we want to know whether the boy doesn’t like vegetables, or whether he’s just politely holding himself back.
Illustration by Lucas Varela
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