I listen to strangers talking all the time. Most of the time it’s dull. Sometimes it’s educational. And, on occasion it’s frightening. The other day I was heading on my way to buy groceries, walking along a particularly busy stretch of sidewalk a few blocks from where I live, when I overheard a man shouting into his mobile phone.
“You f-ing find her and get my shit back. Or I’ll go out there and find her and f-ing kill her! I want my stuff back!” His language, tone, demeanor and facial expression didn’t leave any doubt. He meant what he said.
Why do I listen?
I want to write credible dialog.
Listening to strangers is, odd but true, more useful than listening to friends and family. I’m invested in WHAT my nearest and dearest are saying while I can focus on HOW strangers speak without worrying about the content. It’s a different kind of listening.
In cities like New York, people talk about personal topics in public places because there’s a general agreement—an unspoken social contract—that enables the illusion of privacy. We know people can hear and may even be eavesdropping, but there’s a quiet, psychological barrier that usually inhibits dropping into someone else’s conversation.
This is not to say that talking to strangers is forbidden. It’s not and chatting with strangers at cafes and bars, in stores, on line for shows, etc. is practically a hobby in New York. That kind of casual chatting is fun. The unspoken rule prohibits diving into personal dramas.
Overhearing an intense discussion, with impassioned language and strong emotions is like taking a class in writing dialog. So, don’t mind me—keep talking.