A writer highlights how easy it is to overhear conversations on mass transit:
On Amtrak, powerful people talk loudly and spill secrets.
This is my conclusion based on five years’ field research commuting on Amtrak’s Acela between cities along the East Coast.
By now, you’ve heard about former NSA director Michael Hayden, who on Thursday talked nonstop to a reporter—on background—as the train went north from Washington, D.C. toward New York City. A few seats behind Hayden was Tom Matzzie, former Washington director of political group MoveOn.org, who started live-tweeting his eavesdropping…
As someone who rides the Acela two to three times a week, I can tell you that what Hayden and Matzzie each did—talking loud and tweeting louder—isn’t unusual. In fact, private conversations are so often broadcast across the train car that it’s become fertile ground for competitive intelligence gathering, business development or, as in Matzzie’s case, gaining a whole bunch of new social media followers.
While it may be relatively easy to hear on Amtrak trains, this is also not hard on subways, buses, and other trains. There are plenty of people who talk loudly, particularly on cell phones. I wonder if the best way to stop such loud conversations is to tell people their safety (or even national security!) is at risk – the people around them could learn a lot and then harm them down the road.
Webb argues at the end that most people listening to these public conversations are “accidental spies,” people who would prefer not to hear. However, isn’t this part of participating in public spaces? One doesn’t have to go so far as to strain to hear what people are saying to analyze and/or enjoy human conversation. Why not listen to the lives of others? Doing so can be a lot more interesting than “reality TV” that is heavily edited and scripted.
A final thought: I wonder how many people read this commentary and then think how nice it is to drive themselves to work and elsewhere. No nosy people nearby then, particularly if you have tinted glass…
One columnist has some tips in “amateur sociology” in how to deal with all the conversations you might encounter during the Christmas season:
Tis the season for amateur sociology – if we want to share space with one another happily, that is. With parties and family get-togethers, tension and social gaffes lurk behind every pine swag. And so in honour of the holiday spirit – and the need to enjoy each other’s company, even if you have to pretend – I offer some observations about the art of conversation…
That’s the thing about pleasant conversation. It’s a dance of fancy footwork, a minefield of social explosive devices to be avoided, the exact opposite of what the popular culture of confession and narcissistic Facebook commentary suggests is important. A good conversationalist has a feel for nuance; an understanding of grace; an ability to make careful entrees and gentle exits. He is not obsessed with his own status updates. And he’s adept at skilled deflections.
To make for happy party dynamics, you must demure at times, remain silent when necessary, nod, listen, dare to be conventional and find refuse in a discussion about the weather.
Rarely do you need to say exactly how you feel, especially if it’s about Aunt Shirley’s disgraceful behaviour at the last family get-together.
In recent years, I’ve read various people suggesting that the art of good conversation is slowly dying, particularly among younger generations. Common targets for this include Facebook (like above), rougher political discourse, and a growing sense of incivility.
But, it seems to me that if you want people to be good at conversation, they have to be taught and they have to practice. This is true of any social norm or practice. This doesn’t necessarily mean going to finishing school or things like that but there should be commonly-found settings where good conversation can be found. Reading a tips column like this doesn’t help too much because it can’t prepare one for all the twists and turns a human-to-human conversation might take. Perhaps reading more Erving Goffman and other notable symbolic interactionists could help. Or perhaps keeping Mead’s “generalized other” in mind would help.
So who wants to take up this task?
According to this New York Times article, people who work in mental health professions are much more likely to hear about the personal lives of their seatmates:
Pity the traveling mental health professional. While many travelers find strangers reveal information they might not in other contexts, psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers say they must negotiate a range of interpersonal, ethical and legal issues as they travel.
So while these professionals look for ways to not reveal too much about their jobs so they are not inundated with the personal lives of others, one professional suggests saying that he is a sociologist takes care of the issue:
Niranjan S. Karnik, a psychiatrist and sociologist who teaches at the University of Chicago, said he often told seatmates, “ ‘I’m a sociologist.’ That’s an effective conversation-ender.”
I would like to hear more about this. Is this because the seatmate doesn’t know what a sociologist is or does? Or is it because people perceive it to be a boring or uninteresting profession?