What you can’t unhear: eavesdropping on campus

My first year at Colby, I inhabited Marriner 205, which, at 170 square feet, is one of the smallest first year doubles on campus. Despite its cramped quarters, however, it had one redeeming quality: it was the ideal place for people watching. Nestled above one of the two entrances into Marriner, room 205 was the ideal vantage point for seeing and hearing what was going on in and around Hillside. In my time there, I witnessed two girls ditch their third friend after being stopped by security for carrying open bottles of beer, heard several drunken shouting matches, and once heard an in-depth discussion on one kid’s recent break-up with his high school girlfriend, all of which happened directly beneath my window. But one doesn’t need to have a special perch like I had during my first year to gain insight into other people’s business on campus; in fact, most people don’t even have to leave their rooms at all.

Whether or not you’ve meant to, it is likely that in your time on Mayflower Hill you have overheard something that you weren’t supposed to hear. Eavesdropping is an easy thing to passively engage in at Colby regardless of where you are on campus, and in most cases it is harder to tune out the variety of sounds we are bombarded with at any given moment. 

Almost every weekend, unless you have opted into specialty housing, you can expect to hear the rumbling din of a baseline, a cacophony of drunken conversations, or, most unpleasantly, the rhythmic creaking of a nearby mattress. However, this phenomenon isn’t limited to lively Friday and Saturday evenings; in many dorms, the walls are so thin it easy to hear a casual mid-day conversation held at normal volume in the room next door. It may even get to the point where you feel as though you know quite a bit about your neighbor, even if you only exchange niceties in the bathroom. However, this eavesdropping phenomenon unfortunately goes both ways, and your neighbors might know more about you than you realize.

Susannah Donohoe ’17 is familiar with unintentional eavesdropping and understands why it is so easy to overhear others in the dorms. “When the door is closed, you don’t think about how loud you are being,” she said. Donohoe, a Community Advisor (CA), has often overheard intimate exchanges while roaming the halls on duty. “It’s always personal conversations that seem much louder than they should be,” she adds, “if you knew people could hear you, you wouldn’t be having these conversations.” As a student who is conscious of the thin walls on campus, Donohoe has gone lengths to make sure people can’t listen in on her if she is, say, having a private phone call. “If I have to make a phone call, I will walk a large radius around campus so people can only hear me in passing.” Margot Bruder ’17 agrees with this point, stating: “When speaking on the phone, you definitely limit your conversations if you hear people nearby.” While techniques like Donohoe’s may work for a personal conversation over the phone, when talking with friends in your room or over the table in a crowded dining hall, there is little you can do to keep others from potentially listening in.

The unavoidability of being overheard becomes especially tricky when you consider Colby’s small size and close social proximity. As a school of less than 2,000 students, there are few people that are truly strangers to you, and it isn’t rare to have an idea of who someone is before ever meeting them. Chandler Smith ’18 is familiar with this feeling: “When you look around, you can pretty much recognize everyone, and there are plenty of people who I have never met before who I have heard little tidbits about, whether it be from friends or if there is gossip going around or things I have seen or overheard.” 

Maeve Dolan ’18, a transfer from NYU, noticed this when she arrived at Colby. “At NYU, I could sit in the dining hall and talk freely about my personal life without worrying if other people might hear, or worrying that the someone else might hear and it would get back to them.” However, at Colby, Dolan is wary of the possibility of someone passing judgements on her character based off of eavesdropping and gossip, as she admits to doing the same. “I will create this facsimile of someone in my mind based on small pieces of information that I have about them, and I decide, you know, ‘Oh, that person is really cool,’ or, ‘I don’t like that person,’ and I base my behavior and the way I interact with them on the information I have on them.” She continues to mention that someone else “may not even know who I am or even recognize me, but I have already created this artificial notion of who they are.” What Dolan elucidates isn’t at all unique to her, as most everyone on this campus has likely judged someone they don’t know.

But what happens then when the things you learn about others are potentially biased or inaccurate? If you are relying on gossip and voices through the walls, you are most certainly susceptible to taking things out of context, and when you take thin walls and mix them with a small, intimate community, there becomes a greater risk of miscommunication and potential conflict on campus. “What you hear you can’t unhear; you have it locked in and you have all these predispositional thoughts on individuals before you really have the chance to build a meaningful and lasting relationship with them.” said Smith. “When you eavesdrop, it is dangerous because you don’t have control over the information, you don’t have control over the context and that is tough when you are the one involved in that information…[with eavesdropping] we rarely get the whole picture.”

While it is unreasonable to expect everybody to cease their nosy behavior on campus (I certainly won’t as I now live in a room overlooking the back entrance to Dana) and the walls aren’t getting thicker anytime soon, it is worth taking what we notice or overhear about others with a grain of salt, and for our own sakes, we might hope that others do the same.