Little Pigs Have Big Ears

Today's post is from Catherine.  I know Catherine from a parenting forum (where I also put a plea for guest posts) but we also live fairly close to each other in Lancashire and have met for lunch on one occasion.  Catherine is a fantastic writer with a bit of an evil streak (just ask her about the story of the plumber who was late...).  Over to Catherine...
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I am so thrilled to have been asked (not directly, but hey, you takes what you can get don’t you) to guest blog for Nickie whilst she is having a well earned blogless break. If you like it, please leave a comment. If you don’t, comment anyway but be reassured, you can safely visit Typecast without any danger of me using up this valuable cyberspace – Nickie WILL be back!

Little Pigs Have Big Ears...

Or so my mother used to say when the adults were about to say something they shouldn’t in front of us children.

I've been thinking a lot about listening to other people's conversations recently. I am planning to take part in this - It is a creative eavesdropping project where, on July 1st writers from all over the UK were encouraged to "overhear" a snippet of conversation and use as a springboard for a poem, short story of piece of flash fiction.

This has got me thinking; how much of what we hear do we make wild assumptions about? Do we base our whole idea of a person on something we may have misheard or simply got hold of the wrong end of the stick? Should we "join in" with something we are either very knowledgeable about when it would obviously help the speaker to have our input?

I absolutely adore listening in on the conversation of others. I don't mean to be nosey and would never continue to listen if I felt I was becoming voyeuristic (well, not for that long anyway!); but let's face it, if people are prepared to speak loudly enough for me to hear, in a public place about something, they deserve to be overheard.

My problem comes when I feel the overwhelming urge to join in. I have to restrain myself from adding my two penneth worth or from correcting them about some misconception or other that they are holding onto. It is not an easy task dear readers, I struggle.  I was recently in a restaurant having lunch with my small son when I overheard a group of young women discussing the budget. They were at the next table to us and were in no way speaking quietly. One of the women was noticeably pregnant and she stated that now there was a freeze on Child Benefit, she would not be getting any and that would mean she was £20 a week worse off than if she had had the baby before the budget. Her distress at this lack of additional funds to help out with all those increased expenses she was shortly to incur was palpable. I was this close (tiny distance) from informing her that the "freeze" of which she talked, was in fact a freeze in any increase and did not mean she was not going to be getting any Child benefit. I refrained and turned my attention to my small companion and his talk of which Pokemon was the best choice in a battle against a fire type (no, I have no idea what this means, but I have to listen and look interested). My question is - would it have been better if I had offered the young woman an explanation of what the "freeze" meant?  Would she then have been able to enjoy her lunch knowing she was not, in fact going to miss out on one of the only non means tested benefits available to families? How do I know she wasn't enjoying her lunch anyway? Maybe it was best that I kept my thoughts to myself; after all we are British aren't we, and it is just not done is it?

I have an Estonian friend who struggles with this concept. She stated that, from her experience, it is almost expected of you to join in with overheard conversation. "How else would you ever meet any new people?" was her response when I asked if it was "the done thing".

Small children don't have this constraint either on their ability to comment about everything they hear and see either. "Mummy, why has that person got no hair?" "Mummy, that man just said a naughty word!" I have found it quite useful on occasion, when my small boy has commented on something that I am not “allowed” to. It can enable me to make a comment back, under the pretence of answering his question, but loud enough to inform the original speaker of my distain. "Mummy, that man just spitted on the floor!" "Well, how rude! I
think he must not realise how many germs he is spreading, what do you think sweetie? It is something that is learned; when to butt in and when not. To offer directions to someone you overhear, who is clearly lost, is perfectly acceptable. To offer your opinion on whether someone should disclose an affair to a spouse is clearly not.

We humans also have selective hearing most of the time. The much discussed and amusing misheard song lyrics are some of my favourite. Most of us have giggled at Jimmy Hendrix asking that we excuse him whilst "I kiss this guy" or Freddie Mercury telling us that “Beelzebub has a devil for a sideboard” (no? is that one just me then!)

Our brain is a very clever thing (mind you, I have to ask myself which part of my body is telling me this?).  Every sound we hear goes in through our ears and is dealt with by some process or other to select what we should attend to and what is "spare" noise. This is why, when in a room full of people and talk, we are not aware of anything that is said in amongst that background noise, until someone mentions our name (or funnily enough a swear word).  This is known as The Cocktail Party Effect and was studied by a man named (amusingly) Colin Cherry – thankfully the amusement on my part enabled me to remember this for my psychology A Level, back in the day.

My aged great aunt was notorious for her selective hearing. She could not hear you ask her anything unless you were sitting directly in front of her and speaking very clearly; however, on Christmas when my siblings and I were playing a game of Trivial Pursuit in another room, a question was asked about the winner of the Wimbledon Women's Singles in 1972. "Bilie-Jean King" came the cry from my great aunt! It was a wedge question too.

Back to Bugged - So far, I have overheard a young mum telling her small child that if she didn't "get here now you little bastard" there would be trouble, a woman stating that she would have to apply scabies cream before bed, thanks to her new job and half of a telephone conversation which culminated in the words “oh, it will be fine, she’s only got a little black eye”. I am quite confident that from one or more of these nuggets, I will be able to make some wild assumptions about the speakers and come up with something worth submitting.

Oh to be a small child, an aged great aunt or possibly Estonian to allow my innate nosiness to have free reign! I adore eavesdropping and, thanks to Bugged I am at last able to put my spurious talent to good use.