"I told her she looked refreshed after her vacation but I was itching to find out if that much botox hurts!"
"OMG, if we all breathe in just a little bit more, we can get a couple more on the train."
"So my mom just went through a hysterectomy..."
"You ask why I believe in God? Well, do you believe in ghosts or will you start believing in them when you become one?"
One of the perks or perils of using public transport are snippets of overheard conversation during the commute.
Since I'm quite intrigued and amused by human interactions, I've no qualms about listening to other people's chats. In fact, there have been many instances where I've feigned ignorance by putting on my headphones but actually tuning in to a juicy narrative within hearing distance.
However, if you've just read the same line 10 times because of the person yakking next to you on the bus or train, you would probably consider yourself a victim of cellular overshare or an uncomfortably loud face to face conversation.
Although any loud public interaction might be looked upon as an invasion of mental privacy, research shows that a cell phone halfalogue is far more distracting than a two-sided dialogue.
According to Lauren Emberson, a psychology Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University, "Hearing half a conversation is distracting because we are unable to predict the succession of speech. It requires more attention."
Therefore, when you hear a stranger's one-sided conversation, your brain has to work harder to fill in the gaps and it causes a brain drain. This is an automatic human response known as the 'theory of mind', that is, the human ability to infer what others are thinking and feeling and using this information to predict what they'll do next.
As innocent bystanders, we are often forced to listen to personal pillow talk, office gossip, in-depth grocery discussions or crazy ramblings during the commute. After being a captive audience of so many overheard conversations, I have managed to classify them in terms of personalities:
1. Over Sharer- "Now, will you stop crying? It just makes you look fat!" From lover's quarrels to awful dates; from embarrassing medical conditions to scandalous sweet nothings; from job triumphs to real estate purchases, I've overheard all sorts of excruciating and unsavoury private conversations.
The over sharer does not care if his animated voice and gestures are perceived as an anomaly. For instance, it is not an uncommon sight to see a man in business attire, engaged in a heated consultation over the phone about which salad dressing he should buy from the grocery store or what cuisine he should order for dinner.
Similarly, vivid stories relating to Aunt Ruth's gout problem or Ben's fear of commitment are inexplicably expressed in front of dozens of strangers.
2. Cell phone Crasher- The only way you can get back at a chatty Cathy sitting next to you is by pretending to have a cell phone chat but in reality, you are responding to your neighbour's overheard conversation.
Cell phone crashing is an audio version of photobombing but perhaps more annoying for the victim. It can surely embarrass a loud talker into hanging up if he finally catches the drift:
Victim: "Wow, I love what you've done to your hair!"
Crasher: "Seriously? I thought I cut it too short! I can barely look at myself in the mirror."
Victim: "I've two tickets to the game tonight. You want to come with?"
Crasher: "Sure, what time do you want to meet up?"
3. Crazy Rambler- Using public transport can be fraught with the risk of encountering perturbed individuals having conversations with themselves or making bizarre remarks at passers-by.
At one instance, I witnessed a man who kept asking people, "Excuse me, can I hold your hand?" A more eye-opening experience was when a man walked in to the train wrapped up in aluminium foil. He believed he was an alien from a different planet and asked for everyone's attention while he played a musical instrument to convey his message to outer space. Claiming that he was lost, he started singing Eric Clapton's, "Can't find my way home..."
4. Chronic Liar- It's astounding how some people can lie so smoothly to get out of a sticky spot or to avoid a complicated situation:
"I told him I'd a great time but I couldn't wait to get home and watch Game of Thrones!"
"Mom, your voice is breaking as I'm in the tunnel..." Turning towards the sunlit face of her boyfriend, "That's the only way to avoid a full-scale investigation into my whereabouts."
From telling someone their clothes look stylish (when you actually think they are tacky) or assuring an acquaintance you absolutely want to keep in touch (when you secretly wish they would disappear from the face of this earth), some people just find comfort in lying because it is socially useful to spin stories.
According to Robert Feldman, a psychologist at University of Massachusetts, "We use lies to grease the wheels of social discourse."
5. Doomsday Preacher- Wildly gesticulating and generously judgmental, the doomsday preacher has a way of putting a damper on any conversation:
"You are all sinners and your filthy souls will burn in hell."
While most people are quietly squirming in their seats, someone shouts out, "Get a life, go and get some weed!" Only to be told, "I've got one....it's called eternal salvation!"
With Christmas around the corner, I've recently witnessed my fair share of family drama that accompanies this festive season. Some of the conversations revolved around: devising ways to counter unsolicited advice at the family dinner; debating if Aunt Carol should be invited since she passed a wisecrack about someone's weight last year and a detailed account of finding the perfect gift that will be appreciated:
"She didn't even use what I gave her last year."
"Since she has everything, the only thing she yearns for is the skin of a 16 year old. Perhaps we can secretly pray for a Christmas miracle!"
So what can you do to make sure Christmas is as merry as possible for your fellow commuters? A good start would be to speak without being audible to everyone in a one mile radius! Feel free to share your overheard encounters this season...