The Art of Eavesdropping

Conversations from an Urban Pub-CrawlBusy Body

I spent the past weekend in San Francisco dropping in on conversations and watching people. It’s a bad habit. I justify my questionable behavior by telling myself that I’m an observer of human nature, and that it’s OK. I find people fascinating, and the writer me relishes in completing their story. I liken it to playing piano scales or Sudoku. The practice of instantaneous creativity keeps me nimble on the blank page.

As with any pub-crawl, we started the day hitting the more glamorous sites in San Francisco. By the end of the night, we were in the pub singing with the sailors and thinking we were shoe-ins for American Idol.  But during the day and before the world grew hazy from too many libations, I remembered to make notes.

Sometimes the writer in me stumbles upon some juicy stuff.

Convo 1: No words, only pensive stares:
At the first stop—the swank bar in the Fairmont Hotel—the well-dressed couple sitting across from one another were drinking martinis, and not talking. She was looking off in the distance, while he watched her intently. I imagined he was wondering if she was having an affair. The furrowed brows and the rueful expression in his eyes made he think he was asking himself if she had stopped loving him.

Convo 2: 
At the wine bar in the Ferry building, a stern looking, hefty woman with tattoos on her arms, sat atop the barstool reapplying her lipstick. She scowled at her reflection in the compact as her smacked her lips. She looked up at the man sitting across from her and said, “Sometimes I wish I looked different, you know, less me and more like someone…else…” She paused.  I assumed she was waiting for him to respond. Since I couldn’t hear what he said, I imagined him to be thinking, If you only smiled more often you’d would be beautiful, but you’re never content. You’re always unhappy and nitpicking. You make me crazy half the time.  Sometimes I wish we weren’t married.

Convo 3:
“If I get Alzheimer’s, shoot me,” said the well-preserved woman to a younger identical version of herself.

“Will do,” the younger woman eagerly replied with fists clenched and thumbs pointed upward while wearing a mischievous grin.

On my writer’s easel, I see the two women spending the rest of the afternoon slipping in and out of bars talking to people they happen upon, listening to conversations they are not part of, and filling in the missing pieces of the fragmented conversations. All the while, they continuing discussing the mother’s inevitable dance with illness and death.

Convo 4:
At a Tapas bar on Geary, an amazonish looking woman with lavish red locks said with a heavy French accent to the somber looking man sitting on her right. “I do love you…very much, but I like having sex with other people. Can you understand this…”

I nearly fell off my chair straining to hear the man’s response, but heard nothing as the remaining conversation played out in hushed tones.

On the imaginary page, the thoroughly modern woman strummed her fingers on the tabletop, clearly agitated having to have this conversation with her lover–again.  I was upfront when we started sleeping together—with me there can never be expectations—I am yours forever more, but I have needs you cannot meet. Take me as I am or not at all. 

Convo 5: And the most amusing conversation, I heard was at the pub…
“Becka called me last night in a panic and told me Jerry tried getting into bed with her. She said she woke up when he nuzzled up alongside her and started to nibble at her neck,” the thirty-something wearing a Giants baseball cap said between gulps of his pint of Guinness. “How she got his hotel key and not mine…

There were stories in all vignettes, but this particular one took flight.  I see Becka’s story unfolding.

Do you eavesdrop? I mean, would you ever?  


I’m a writer and hoarder of one-size-fits-all panty hose. Until the hose fits over my bum, I write to provide an alternative view on writing and perfection.

39 thoughts on “The Art of Eavesdropping

  1. Vicki Batman

    I need to follow you around. I like watching people, but don’t listen to their conversations. lol My new mission now.

    Those were so good too.

  2. Debra Doggett

    I do eavesdrop. I guess I figure people are out in public so what they say is in the “public domain”, lol. It’s a fun way to continue their conversations as you have. Great stuff!

  3. Oh, how this sounds like fun!! Great stories in the making. I mean, you *have* to write stories now otherwise people will say you’re just a nosy bitch <3!!
    Astra recently posted….ThawstruckMy Profile

    • Astra, you would probably great stories to hear as well. All those hours in the stadium watching the kids…listening to moms, has to be great fodder.

  4. I think it’s in a writer’s nature to eavesdrop . . . “If I get Alzheimer’s, shoot me,” did make me laugh (it goes with being a certain age). When I’m out and about, I find it so odd that people are sitting across from each other at a table, each in a conversation with someone else on a cell phone.
    Deborah Batterman recently posted….Once upon a time . . .My Profile

    • Jayne, it’s my pleasures. Writer’s have to stick together. I had no idea you were from this neck of the woods. I love living here.

  5. k~

    Huh, I have never intentionally listened in to a conversation amongst strangers, but I have enjoyed those conversations that were close enough, and interesting enough, to listen to and laugh a little. People watching is a spectator sport and one I love to engage in. I spend more time imagining what they are saying than actually listening in on their conversations. The tics that people use whether they are talking, or by themselves reading, fascinate me. Perhaps, taking notes and listening will become the next great spectator sport Brenda, it sounded like fun when you did it!
    k~ recently posted….Dance With Me – (Master Class 07)My Profile

    • Hi K, long time… Clearly, I cannot help myself. I am an active dropper-inner when it comes to other conversations. As for people watching, it’s a great way to discover traits for my characters not yet created on the page.

  6. Hi Brenda

    Now that is funny! Too much to drink and you have loose lips. Do you think they might really be oblivious to those around them or do they secretly wish others could hear them? I wonder about this, but then again some people just don’t know how to talk quietly, which provides others with a lot of juicy information. Maybe I need to hang out at bars again, haven’t done that in years…nah I think I will just stay home in case I get loose lips. lol

    Mary Stephenson recently posted….International Happiness Day – A Good Reason to SmileMy Profile

    • Mary – I think people don’t think about it.. I take the train to work each day and I am always amazed by types of conversations people have on their cell phones and with partners. Blows min mind.

  7. People watching and eavesdropping is like Mother’s milk to a writer. I had a teacher tell me to carry around an “observation diary” so when I came across great fodder for a story I’d mark it down and have material for dry periods or more for a work-in-progress. It’s fun letting our imaginations run wild from eavesdropping – and a one sided conversation is even better.

    • Hi Linden, I like the expression, “mother’s miik’, perfect description. Like you, I am always with a notebook. And for the odd times I am not, I will use my phone, take a picture and make notes. How can we not?

  8. You know, Brenda, this post convinced me that I don’t get out enough. I need to go to places here and there where I can actually eavesdrop. Like you, I love watching people and imagining how and where they live and what their lives are like. Guess it’s the writer in me, too!
    Love and blessings!
    Martha Orlando recently posted….Transformed!My Profile

    • Martha – it’s good to get out and step outside of our comfort zones. In one of Julia Cameron’s writing books she talks about taking yourself out once a week to observe… I just reminded myself I have to make my trips out more regularly.

  9. Oh, my Brenda, how funny. Sometimes I do overhear, but so often these days it’s when someone is talking on a cell and treating the world to his or her life :)
    I’ll say, though, you move in some interesting places LOL>

    • Hi Barbara, you’re spot on re: the cell phone. I am always amazed what I hear.. I make it a point to keep my private convos, you know, private. I find a secluded corner to whisper my I loves yous, or REALLY.. i might choke you… etc.

    • Hi Barbara, the one-sided cell phone conversations are the best for the writer, although I always wonder why anyone would have such intense convos were others can hear.

  10. well this is a fun mix of conversations…i’m amazed at what people feel free to discuss in public. I’m too conservative I guess. but it does make for good writing fodder.

  11. Not eavesdropping as such, but if I happen to overhear a conversation because people are speaking loud enough for me to hear them (and in a public place), and if I’m bored enough, I might listen.
    It can be inspirational for a writer. *grins*
    angel011 recently posted….Friday Fun: Death and the KittyMy Profile

  12. Those are terrific Brenda. That’s one of my favorite character building activities. It’s funny the ones that stay with you. I’ve had a couple in mind going on 20 years from a conversation my husband and I overheard. There’s a young woman impatiently standing on the stairs inside Quincy Market Place, in Faneuil Hall Boston. A smiling man approaches carrying two slices of pizza and she launches at him. “Why did you buy that? I didn’t ask for that? I don’t want pizza.” It was as if she’d slapped him across the face. I’ve never forgotten the contempt in her voice or the dismay on his face. I’ve also never forgotten how disturbed my husband was by the meanness of it.
    Lynne Favreau recently posted….Watch This: Paolo Nutini’s “Iron Sky”My Profile

  13. Hi Brenda,

    I admit to “listening in” to at least parts of other people’s conversations. It they are whispering, I don’t strain to hear them, but if they’re speaking loud enough for me to hear, I think that I’m allowed. I try to remember the interesting bits, so that I can use them in my stories, but I don’t take notes, so many of them are lost.

    “…the mother’s inevitable dance with illness and death.” Great line.
    Ray Colon recently posted….DisconnectedMy Profile

  14. Some of us writers can’t leave well enough alone. I know I pick up conversations wherever I go. I don’t think I ever heard one as funny as a guy heard who was relating it on a radio program I was listening to. He said he heard a woman say to her friend as they went past him, “…and they had to tase her again.”

  15. What fun you had eavesdropping and imagining scenarios re what they were saying. I can’t say I’ve done it deliberately, but every once in a while you can’t help but overhear, especially when they’re talking loudly. It’s like they want to be heard. Anyway, now you’ve got me wanting to do it too. Maybe I’ll go Starbucks hopping. Have a great week!
    monicastangledweb recently posted….It’s a Bird, it’s a Plane…It’s a Conspiracy!My Profile

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