Q&A: Why Do We Eavesdrop? It’s Complicated

December 3, 2010 | CUNY Matters

John Locke, professor of linguistics in the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences at Lehman College and a professor of language science at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of three academic books as well as two popular books. He recently spoke with CUNY Matters about his latest book, Eavesdropping: An Intimate History, published this summer by Oxford University Press. Professor Locke has spent a large part of his career researching the biology of language, including its development in children.

Q: In your latest book, you take the reader back centuries to show how eavesdropping has evolved. How has it changed throughout the years?

JOHN LOCKE: We have been eavesdropping for as long as recorded history has existed. There is every reason to believe that the great apes eavesdropped, that almost all animals eavesdrop and that even plants eavesdrop. But the biggest change in the history of eavesdropping occurred gradually, probably starting 10,000 years ago, with the beginning of structural privacy, which is the construction of walls, ceilings, corridors, doors, shutters and so forth. Privacy thwarted eavesdropping. It may have been unintentional, but over time people became increasingly private and guarded.

Q: Despite its negative connotation, you have defended eavesdropping, writing that it is both a natural and a beneficial part of being human.

Locke

Locke

A: Eavesdropping was an essential and necessary aspect of life when our ancestors were living in the wilderness without any kind of protection. When someone had food, they had to share it. Human beings have always been capable of being selfish, so hoarding was possible and if there was hoarding, it was frequently observed and gossiped into extinction with social reprisals for those who failed or refused to share. Today, the benefits are different. We are safer when we know what’s going on next door and our neighbors may be safer because we know what’s going on next door.

Q: There’s another dimension that you explore in your book — the psychological aspect of eavesdropping.

A: When we use our senses to explore the inner life of another person, we remain who we are. We stand on the periphery of their life, project ourselves into it, probably take things from it and import those things into our own life. There is an illegal thrill that comes with that kind of an experience — it is perceptual trespassing. We know we really shouldn’t do it and, even if it is okay to do it, if that person saw us doing it, he or she would be instantly changed. That person wouldn’t be the same individual any more. They would straighten up, think about what they had been doing, alter their behavior and the moment would be gone. We would no longer be in the life of that person because they would be in our lives, too.

Q: In today’s world of Facebook and YouTube, what are the ethics of privacy? Have the rules changed along with technology?

A: In the past, human communication was less effective because it was less likely that you might be seen doing something that you shouldn’t be doing. Now, when someone does something, they don’t know whether or not that behavior is being memorialized or captured — behavior that they thought private may now become public if someone decides to launch those images into cyberspace — to be seen by total strangers, thousands of miles away. We all need to be on guard.

Q: Your chapter on personal power and social control, which you call the main benefits of eavesdropping, was very provocative. What makes these enduring human traits?

A: They’re joined at the hip. Personal power is likely to accrue to anyone who knows anything that others want to know and that someone else wants to keep private. In particular, that applies to behaviors that are considered embarrassing or wrong in a moral, legal or any other sense that people want to protect. As far as social control is concerned, we have privatized ourselves so that we remained, at least until recently, in complete control of information about ourselves. Now it is out of control and it has gone back to where it was centuries ago — in the public domain.

Q: You have another book coming out in the summer of 2011 titled Duels and Duets: How Men and Women Came to Talk So Differently. It sounds intriguing.

A: My book focuses on what men are like when they talk to other men and what women are like when they talk to other women. I use the terms “duels” and “duets” to describe their conversations. Men are inclined to engage other men in a sort of contesting way, trying to get the upper hand, they joke, joust. Women tend toward more intimate interactions, with disclosure of emotional experience. In the book, I explain why men duel and women don’t duel and why women duet and men don’t duet and what it means evolutionarily, developmentally and physiologically, what the hormonal differences are and how those drive the two sexes to behave differently. I try to create a complete account for why we humans are the way we are when we’re talking.