Rhonda Herrington Bulmer
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April 9th, 2013
‘Scuse me, could you speak up? I can’t hear you.
by Rhonda Herrington Bulmer

Here’s the problem with eavesdropping: it’s very difficult to draw your chair close enough without making it obvious that you’re listening. I wanted to say, “don’t mind me, I’m just going to put this voice recorder here in front of you…”

In the beginning scenes of My Fair Lady, Professor Henry Higgins furtively writes down (in linguist shorthand) what the main character, flower girl Eliza Dolittle, says and how she says it. A stranger walks up to her and whispers, “’Ey, there’s a bloke behind that pillar takin’ down every blessed word you’re sayin’.”

Eliza freaks out.

earWell, I’m no linguist, but I was taking down people’s words at the mall. The bits I could hear, anyway. I got some strange looks, but nobody said anything.

You see, I’ve started a little playwriting club. So far, there’s only two members (including me) and we meet monthly to write together and share our work. One of our growth strategies is to use writing exercises. I’ve been reading The Blunt Playwright, by Clem Martini (Playwrights Canada Press, 2006).

One of these exercises, called The Playwright as Observer, was broken into two parts. The first part prescribes sitting in a public area, eavesdropping on conversations, and writing them down as accurately (and quickly) as possible. The second part of the exercise requires taking that stack of dialogue and turning it into a short scene, based on what stood out most during the conversation.

So we took this exercise to a coffee shop, along with a third friend.

My friends were late. When I walked in, there was only one guy there…a fiftyish man with short, thinning, silver hair. He was reading the newspaper. It was spread out in front of him on the table and he looked at it through chained glasses sliding far down his nose.

I sat down, and a forty-something balding guy in a business suit came in to buy a coffee and a newspaper, but he didn’t stay. He stopped to put cream and sugar in his coffee before rushing back out the door. He had dark eyes, red tie, sweater vest, charcoal overcoat. Lawyer, maybe? Chartered accountant? He clicked the cover in place and rushed out the door. He climbed into his big Ford SUV and drove away.

While I was taking notes on these people, it occurred to me that I should take a good look and then write stuff down, not write stuff down in between looks. People might get the wrong idea. Probably wouldn’t do to complete this exercise where biker gangs and hookers hang out, either. One might get trounced that way.

My friends arrived and we realized that if we were going to snoop in on people’s social lives we needed to do it in a busier place. We opted to go to The Mall, and once we were there, we separated. Two of them stayed in a busier coffee kiosk, and I decided to wander over to the food court.

I noticed a girl with purple hair and chains on her clothes. Sitting across from her was a girl wearing studs in uncomfortable places, it seemed to me. They were having a  passionate discussion about environmentalism in regards to oil and gas issues in the United States, and some documentary they needed to watch, and about some historical person in the US who took control of an untenable situation and changed it. And we should too, dammit!

Two problems: One, Purple Girl spoke in English, Studded Girl answered in French. They went on for ten minutes like that. It was unusual and interesting—too bad I could only understand half of it.

Two, it was difficult to find a chair close enough to hear without making it obvious I was eavesdropping. I could hear Studded Girl okay, because the sound of her voice was coming towards me, but she was the one speaking French.

I sat behind Purple Girl and leaned my head back a little so I could hear better, but I think I might have accidentally touched her head with mine once. Whoops.

Okay, so that didn’t work out so well. Too bad.

Then I sat next to a group of old geezers, six or eight of them, who were shooting the breeze around a table. I sat behind a tall pillar, just like Henry Higgins.

When I sat down with my pen and pad, they shut up. Seriously?

So I abandoned the food court. I wandered over to a seat in the middle of a hallway where two teenage girls were chatting and playing games on their cellphones.

The first thing I heard was, “Do you know what my mom’s obsessed with?”

“What?” asks second girl.

“Boyfriends,” first girl answers.

Don’t ask me what they looked like…this time, I didn’t dare look, in case they thought I was weird and moved away.

Once again, I couldn’t really hear very well. Blah, blah, blah…blah, blah, blah. And then, “Remember my neighbour, the one with the big glass gazebo? That’s her new stepmom.”

Then there’s silence while they play their games. “I suck at this one,” first girl says. “Time to get the bus.” And off they went.

Later, I sat next to a couple discussing their high-achievement daughter who was worried about her marks. “She won’t accept anything less than perfect—but even then…if she gets a 20 out of 20, she’s still not happy. Whaddya want, a 21?” Mom said.

These are all snatches of conversations, not whole ones. You might not think I got enough to go on, but it was an interesting evening. What stood out most for me?

I noticed that I made inferences about people’s personalities from how they were dressed and their mannerisms, combined with what they said. At first, I thought I must be sparklingly intuitive to come up with theories about who they really were, but this may or may not be accurate. Does a person’s dress describe who he really is, or does it describe who he wants to be? Does it describe who he wants other people to think he is?

You could write a whole story about that.

Regardless,  if you want to take down strange conversations in order to write better dialogue, I would suggest finding a quieter place than the mall.

3 Responses to “‘Scuse me, could you speak up? I can’t hear you.”

  1. charmaine says:

    Well, at least you write very fast!!! That must have helped. Great story.

  2. Yolande says:

    Ahhhh…sipping my tea and enjoying your eavesdropping in the privacy and comfort of home! haha! It sounds like it could become really dangerous if people misunderstand what you are doing. I have a suggestion (and everyone who knows me personally can just stop saying, “Oh, yeah? What a surprise! Yolande has advice to give!” Just can it, okay? Thanks!)

    What I am going to suggest is a simple change of medium. Rather than go about your activities, paper and pen in hand, use a laptop. It’s completely accepted that wifi areas will have people tapping away on laptops, annndddd….if people talk and if someone continues to type, who’s to know if that typist if writing a letter, commenting on facebook, or taking down every blessed word those people are saying!!!

    I will add that this actually happened to me…well, around me… To clarify, I was chilling at the Chapter’s Starbucks one evening, waiting for my family to arrive from their shopping, and my daughter-in-law, Beth, came on the Facebook chat. Well, it was lovely to talk with her; but became increasingly difficult as the conversation between the couple at the table nearby became more and more like an afternoon movie. Turns out it was their first date. Well, there were some funny lines, so I transcribed them for Beth, and we laughed or said, ‘how sweet’, depending. I was there for several minutes and when Beth and I signed of, she said “I felt like I was there!” Well, no one was the wiser for my unintended eavesdropping. I had a diverting time of it. And a bit later, I saw that the couple were holding hands, so my typing did not in any way cool their ardour!! Happy typing! :D

  3. Rhonda says:

    That’s great, Yolande! Now you could just take it one step further and write a short play around that conversation.

    Yes, I should bring a laptop with me. It would make much more sense.

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