A week of eavesdropping
This week we wanted to observe (re: spy) the strangers around us, specifically, documenting what they were talking about. So we spent the entire week trying to overhear conversations we caught glimpses of to understand and report the main topics. I think I suggested this week’s topic in the first place, I imagined it would be fun, but I found it hard and draining in the end!
I have different ways to collect my data, and this depends on how clear it is to me what’s interesting to gather at the beginning of the week. For example, when the topic is still pretty vague on Monday mornings, I would just jot down lots of notes about every entry point, and refine my reports during the week when I figure out what to “ask” to my data.
Some other times - like this one - when I already know what I want to discover, I set up specific questions to gather my data, and use the Reporter App as an aid to my collection.
My queries for my week of playing secret agent were:
- who are the victims? (are they two men, two women, a couple, a group, a man or woman talking over the phone?)
- what is the situation (are they chatting in a cafe, walking the street, shopping at a store and so on)
- what language do they speak? (we both live in a multicultural city, and it’s nice to notice the many languages of the people we encounter)
- how long could I spy them for?
- and, most importantly: what are they talking about?
It turns out I didn’t make any revolutionary discover. My overheard conversations span from gossiping, complaining, organizing or making plans, sharing family issues or work related matters, sometimes fighting about trivial stuff, mentioning New York and specific areas of it, and referring to people or situations other than the talkers.
Many times I could only hear bits of a dialogue without getting the main subject because the environment was too noisy or because I wasn’t close enough. Many times people around me were speaking a foreign language I couldn’t understand, but at least I tried to detect what it was. Many other times I started to listen but - honestly - I got incredibly bored.
The nicest note of the week was catching to two Italian women clearly commenting about me and my outfit: as many times happens when you speak a foreign language, they were sure I couldn’t understand them!
In my postcard, I tried to convey the main idea for the week by shaping each conversation I’ve heard as a “ear", the length of which represents how long I’ve been listening.
Actually, my initial main query “what are they talking about” wasn’t what I turned out to be most compelled by. In fact, I’ve been more curious about what the relationship between them was rather than what they were talking about: were they a couple? Was it a first date? Were they working pals or friends? And also, how were they feeling about each other? Was one of the two bored to death because clearly only one of them was speaking, or were they both engaged in the conversation?
I think Stefanie and I both agreed this wasn’t a great topic, and generally we were expecting much extraordinaries discoveries to draw and share with each other, sorry Stef I suggested it in the first place!
As soon as I left the house I knew data-gathering this week would be a challenge, and I walked from my house to my train platform with a feeling of dread that intensified once I saw a crowd of people and I knew I had to start my spying. Oh, dear, what were we thinking? I don’t actually want to spy on people, I’m just a person who wants to stand on a train platform and stare off into space and daydream, or stare at and tap aimlessly at my phone, or listen to music, and is there anything wrong with that?
As with other performative weeks, living in London means I am very conscious of not intruding into the small wedges of private space that Londoners try to carve out for themselves in a crowd of people: this personal, private space is precious and there is an unspoken agreement that everyone lets everyone else be, and respects these boundaries. This is a very London thing, as while in New York I am always uneasy when people speak to me on public transport, because were I in London this would be a sign that this person was potentially a little unusual and possibly volatile.
Because of this, (and I know I am repeating myself here, as I do every vaguely performative week), these more performative weeks are hard for me. I try to like them, but they make me angry! I am starting to realise that this is both because of my aforementioned unease with breaking into someone’s private space and also, it means that I can’t have the precious wedge of private time for reflection and solitude that public transport and walking are for me in this city. I feel cheated out of time for myself when I have to interact with others for this project, and this always makes me sulk at the beginning of the week.
Slowly, however, my grumpiness disappeared as I settled into a more relaxed way of listening to conversations around me. My biggest insight? Most people are talk about boring subjects, mainly carrying out ‘administrative’ conversation where they are discussing public transport and planning their movements across London.
Also, while I tried to eavesdrop there was one main barrier that prevented me from overhearing conversations many times: many of the conversations that I heard were spoken in other languages, or were spoken in English dialects / patois that were too difficult for me to understand.
London is the capital city of a country that once had an empire where the sun never set, on a continent with multiple separate languages in a relatively small area, so of course I am accustomed to hearing a sea of languages and sounds around me as I move about my city. However, these different languages are comforting instead of alien: I like not knowing everything about the people or the place I inhabit, I love living in a city that is continually mysterious and too big to be fully-known. Perhaps this is the reason why I came to live in London in the first place: to never feel as though I know everything, and focusing upon eavesdropping and languages has reminded me of this.
I drew this card to look as though little speech bubbles were creeping in from the edges of the paper, as though the postcard was overhearing these conversations. In the end, I’m pleased with this postcard as it has become a nice record of what I love about London, which is this cacophony of different languages around me. Ok, ok: so perhaps this week of data-gathering wasn’t that bad after all.
I know that Giorgia’s drawings are supposed to look like ears, but I like how they also look like question marks, in my mind alluding to the unknown and mysterious nature of these scraps of conversation without context! Also, noticing that Giorgia spied on her friends made me smile, and noticing that there were people she overheard that she wanted to punch made me laugh out loud: I felt the same way so many times this week as well! I’m glad we are both in agreement: some people are just totally insufferable, and it shows in how they speak and communicate with others!