I have an addiction that cannot be cured by sitting on a psychiatrist’s couch or watching an episode of Intervention. It’s something that I’ve struggled with for over a decade and it’s a struggle to even remember my life before it started. It’s quite difficult to avoid and once it starts my mind races to a mile a minute in mere seconds. Simply put, I am addicted to the treacherous act mostly commonly known as eavesdropping.
How can one develop an addiction for something so silly? It was hard work but spending thousands of hours doing any task will most likely resort in some semblance of skill no matter what the task may be. In my very early teens, I was employed as a data entry clerk in a typical gray-walled cubicle farm. Imagine Office Space with shorter walls and acne-faced adolescents. Like most kids at that age with a part-time job, this experience was not taken seriously and its sole purpose was to fund my raging dependence on Menthols and Olde English (Colt 45 if I was in a mood to celebrate). I tried to get away with everything a young lad possibly could: come in late, sneak in smoke breaks, play an absurd amount of Minesweeper and of course surf the net for hours on end in the golden pre-Facebook era.
I was perpetually concerned about losing my job and had to look out for any possible clues of my imminent dismissal. My boss sat about 10-15 feet away from me depending on where my assigned desk was at the time, and oddly enough her cubicle only had one of the requisite three walls. I was determined to listen to every single one of her conversations, sifting through hours upon hours of banal chatter for any nugget about my performance.
It started with my boss and slowly led to eavesdropping on all of my coworkers just in case they too were possibly saying negative things about me. I then started listening in on every single conversation within earshot and developed the uncanny ability to do so while simultaneously typing words and numbers into a database. It turned into something that I could not turn off. Every waking minute that was spent at my desk was split into an unhealthy marriage of keyboard tapping and eager multi-directional listening. I somehow had this job for an inexplicably long period of 5 years, which translates into about 4,500+ hours of eavesdropping “training”.
Presently, I only purposely use this gift to secretly listen if women are talking about me since I have a wavering sense of self-confidence and actually have a pretty good job for once. Otherwise, this talent is always turned on regardless if I want it on or not. Subways and streetcars are my own little temples of doom as I jump from convo to convo as often as the next stop is announced. Libraries and lineups provide glimpses into the lives of people who are probably too stressed out for their good and would definitely benefit from tacking on a few extra hours to each day.
So what’s a guy to do? Well for starters, listening to an iPod is definitely helpful and pretty much eliminates this issue on the TTC. It’s just not practical to have the headphones on all the time when I’m on a patio, at the beach, catching a baseball game, or any of the other countless things where it’s imperative that I’m able to listen to my surroundings. But what about instances where it’s either rude or inconvenient to listen to my tunes? Reading helps but my ears keep jumping from station to station, like a road-weary traveler searching for music amongst the radio-evangelists. Ditto for playing games on my phone.
This started as a way to listen to things that I actually wanted to hear about and most likely concern me. That is the underlying reason why this sickness makes me so ill. Now, I have to hear about things that I couldn’t possibly care about even if someone did indeed give me a penny for their thoughts (or a nickel or dime, but maybe for a toonie?). Topics that include sexual innuendo or lurid escapades from the night prior are always welcome. Topics such as cat bowel movements and a woman’s inability to ever trust a guy again are considerably less welcome.
After attending a conference in Chicago a few years back, I was in an entrepreneurial spirit and wanted to see if there was any way to profit from my skill. Any police or private detective jobs were immediately out of the question. However, I’m sure many sleepless nights were spent conjuring scenarios in my mind about FBI agents needing the top eavesdropping spy in the world to help catch a cold-blooded killer. Another slightly more realistic option was to somehow incorporate it into a website and sell advertising (the American Dream?). An award-winning comedy site in the United States leveraged this skill into publicly listing all of the funny things that were overheard in the city that month, with an occasional cartoon or rough caricature about what was said. The site wasn’t overtly funny but there were some good lines here and there and the cartoons about grown men heatedly debating young children about the superiority of STAR WARS or STAR TREK were always amusing. Someone had already developed a pretty awful version of the site in Toronto at the time so I regrettably abandoned the dream.
I did manage to speak to a psychiatrist about this to see if there was anything I could do to prevent it from happening or maybe even getting worse. She wanted to get to the root of the problem and see if it was a confidence issue coupled with a fear of being constantly judged by others. I had to subject myself to a few tests where I was being unfairly critiqued for a wide variety of things and then asked to answer some aptitude tests. I’m a bit of a math nerd and always did well in English exams growing up so I aced all of the tests despite facing extreme levels of criticism. What she did find out surprisingly was that I didn’t really care what was being said or even if it was about me at all. I was simply an overly curious person who wanted to know what was happening around me. Her final diagnosis was that I needed to do a better job of developing a singular focus on whatever it I’m doing and try not to really put so much stock into the opinion of complete strangers. She suggested I try noticing things I wouldn’t normally pay attention to and maybe my brain would be too focused to wander off and listen to conversation.
Simple enough I thought. It was getting a bit better as I tried to observe all of the minute details of every experience I had in a public setting. At the Blue Jay’s game, I paid more attention to the batting averages, fielder positions for specific batters and analyzing which pitches were used for specific pitching counts. On a patio, I paid more attention to whatever my date was telling me at the time instead of having to project my best fake smile along with convincing head nods and the occasional “That’s so funny you should really be a comedian!’ line thrown in for good measure.
Life is getting better but there’s only so many ads I can stare at on the streetcar and only so many women I can ogle without being caught (sunglasses on the subway?). Eavesdropping will always be a part of me but now I also notice how wrinkled your shirt is, the type of stain you have on your shoe and whether or not you smell like you just smoked a joint or a cigarette or both for that matter. Either way, I’m sure it’ll all end up on a website someday or even some kind of weird eavesdropping monthly newsletter. Or maybe I just overheard the details of this entire story on an episode of 60 Minutes while painting my old apartment? Hope nobody notices.