Listening In

Photo of Vicky Pollard, Character from the TV show, Little Britain

I have recently become a regular user of public transport. The interesting thing about public transport is that human behaviour is laid bare. If you sit back and observe, you will see human quirks in all their glory.

On a train you will have a bogan sharing space with the prim and proper. You will have a man in a Hugo Boss business suit standing next to a woman in leotards who is, no doubt, heading down-town to the gym. You will have the grimy the clean, the young and the old, the nice and the foul all sharing a confined space.  It is a zoo!

The most amazing thing about people on the train is that they are so nosy. If they are not trying to look at a person’s phone or newspaper over that persons shoulder they are constantly eavesdropping. They give the impression that they are minding their own business by focusing on their phone, listening to their music or seemingly being engrossed in their book/newspaper- but I know better.

I was watching my fellow commuters one morning. There were a group of teenagers and they were typically rowdy. They were talking about god knows what and laughing loudly. They were standing next to an elderly woman. As they chatted away you could see her furtively looking over her shoulder. Perhaps the teenagers were having a Vicky Pollard moment. Their conversation might have sounded something like this:

“Yeah but no but yeah but no but there’s this whole other fing wot you dont know nuffin about so SHARRUP! u SHURRUP! and Tasha ses ur gay but dont listen to er cos she smokes weed and she’s pregnant with Darren’s baby so SHAP u!Doesn’t matter ne way coz we got one of dese (sniffs pritt stick) Come on girls, lets gwo, dis place is RABBASH! takes a bow u like? – “

What ever they were talking about the elderly lady did not look impressed. Occasionally her eyes would widen, as if in shock. Then she would give her head a little shake and gently puff out her cheeks as if to show her disgust. Other commuters would simply roll their eyes. A few would grin. Others who didn’t want to know would reach for their music devices. You could see them adjusting the volume in the vain hope that it would shut out the mindless conversation and worthless noise coming from the youth.

Being deaf I am spared the mindless chatter of my fellow commuters. Nevertheless, I remain fascinated about what I may be missing. Just as an experiment I decided to try and lip-read peoples conversations. At the seat across the aisle a woman was in animated chatter with her friend. Of course trying to lip-read and look inconspicuous is no mean task. I gave my best impression of looking at the scenery through the window and fixed my sight firmly on the woman’s lips. She said something like:

“At this point my father in-law joined the conversation…..”

And this is as far as I got because the woman twigged on that I was looking at her. She leaned forward to her friend and began to whisper. I have no idea what she said but it was probably along the lines that some creepy old guy across the aisle staring at her.

What I really needed was Sign Guy. This is, of course, the wonderful Mark Cave.  Mr Cave has become an overnight sensation for his brilliant interpreting of the recent cyclone emergency in Queensland. Sign Guy has become an internet sensation and stories about his exuberant and expressive interpreting have been printed all over the world. I need Sign Guy to zoom in, like Superman, and eavesdrop on conversations on the train for me.

But wait, I have my own Sign Guy. I was travelling this morning with my son, Finlay. I was determined to eavesdrop on a conversation and Finlay agreed to assist me. At first he told me not to be stupid. A bit of bribery in the form of letting him use my phone to while away the boredom of the trip home was all that was needed to loosen his ears.

He sat himself directly opposite two geeky looking guys and relayed their conversation to me. It went something like this:

“They are talking about currency and gold and bronze and something like that.”

“He is talking about being more adventurous with his food and making arrangements for dinner.”

“He made some kind of joke about coming to terms with his gayness.”

“This is the worst conversation in history dad … can I have your phone now.”

You may laugh but there is a seriousness in eavesdropping for people who are deaf, particularly if they are young. For example the discussion on currency could have piqued some interest in a young person. After listening to the conversation of the two geeks they may have gone home and recounted the conversation to their parents. They might have learnt from this of the various currencies all over the world, how the exchange rate works and so on. Simply by over-hearing this simple conversation they have a pathway to learn something new and expand on new concepts.

Or they may gave gone home and mentioned the joke about coming to terms with ones gayness. This may have led to discussions about coming out. It may have led to discussions about the appropriateness of making jokes about gayness. Perhaps over dinner the topic is raised and a discussion ensues about same sex marriage. Through the simple art of over-hearing much can be learnt leading to much maturity of thought and knowledge.

But if you are deaf you miss out on this information. What may seem an inane conversation between people is in fact a wealth of knowledge to be tapped into. It’s a natural learning that occurs through everyday social interaction. It happens on the train, it happens at school, it happens waiting for the bus – IT HAPPENS EVERYWHERE. Yet if you are deaf you miss out on it. The consequences can be profound. New vocabulary is missed, new concepts are missed, diversity of opinions are missed. This can have a profound impact on the development and maturity of the young deaf person.

For me I am simply a nosy old man. But eavesdropping is a crucial part of our social learning and its impact is not well understood. So next time your deaf friend or your deaf child asks you whats going on, take the time to let them know. Just by taking the time to fill them in can help them feel included. More importantly it can be crucial for ones learning and social development – More than most people will ever know.

13 thoughts on “Listening In

  1. You said that “…eavesdropping is a crucial part of our social learning and its impact is not well understood.”

    To the contrary, eavesdropping is widely understood.

    It is a betrayal of human rights. It is a breach of an individual’s legal right to privacy.

    • Well then throw us all in Jail because there is not one person in the world, especially hearing people, who is not a passive eavesdropper … you perhaps need a dose of reality.

  2. Maybe there are other people in the world who respect other people’s privacy.

    Are you saying that a decision by a person to invade another’s personal privacy is ok because other people do it? If enough people rubbish human rights, that’s ok. If a person asks his son to invade other people’s privacy, that’s ok. If a stranger tuned in to a private conversation between you and your partner or children, you’re okay about that. Is this what you are saying?

  3. I’m saying as a social experiment it is valid .. I wanted to point out the depth of info being missed and how this can lead to human development and maturity … next time whisper really low .or sign behind a book cos everyone’s listening and watching .. they don’t give a toss about human rights … and if people want to be private talk quietly and not in public .. quite simple really.

  4. U own the blog, u win. Thanks for being dismissive and condescending. I’m not a “dear fellow”. I’m a woman with a family last time I had a look. Don’t bother with platitudes. The age of dinosaurs is over. Time for you to leave before u do more damage.

  5. I gather you have not been troubled by the inconvenience of an education and the resultant irritation of independent thinking.

    • No … A university education has been wasted on me … but to return to the intellectual .. rather than the personal attacks, fun as they are …

      everyday people overhear things … just quite naturally … radio .. TV .. conversations .. whatever
      …. now hearing people all know a conversation is private and as much as they try to shut it out a little of it seeps in… A large proportion of them share what they hear with friends … like it or not they do … If you are hearing . . I am sure you do to … If you are deaf you are in the same boat as me … now people who are deaf, for better or for worse, are denied this ability to overhear … my son hears these conversations everyday .. passively … He doesn’t deliberately listen in, it just happens … I am sure at school he shares this with his peers .. so and so was discussing whether he should tell his parents he is leaving home next week today or wait for the weekend … so and so chose to air this loudly .. for better or for worse … an entirely fictional situation … now as part of this article I asked my son to simply interpret to me what he and several other people on the train were hearing .. just passively … I didn’t ask him to sneak up on anyone … I didn’t reveal the identity of anyone .. I simply asked him to interpret what he and everyone else on the train was hearing anyway … I dont get that access .. everyone else does .. perhaps you can argue it is my right to get access to the information everyone else is hearing anyway .. why should it breach human rights simply because the deaf person has asked to be informed what all of their fellow (male and female) passengers are hearing any way? I’m simply asking my son to share what he is hearing naturally .. no more no less .. no human rights have been infringed .. The overheard have chosen to speak loudly enough for all to hear … they have not considered their privacy .. they simply spoke loudly without a care in the world who was listening or not .. I simply asked my son to share with me what all others who were hearing were listening to any way .. no more no less .. If I deliberately filmed, recorded or identified someone I may have case to answer .. but here I have simply asked for access to what all were hearing anyway . Whether they liked it or not … now that is it .. your PHD … what is private and what isn’t .. simple as … no human rights have been breached … so my fellow (male or female) human rights advocate .. that is as it is.

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