The art of passive hearing

I noticed it sitting in Oslo airport recently, waiting for a flight to Ireland. Christmas and New Year celebrations had come and gone and I had a morning flight to Dublin to go see family in the West of Ireland. I was travelling alone this time as my mother needed some help and care. She has dementia and so sometimes it’s just easier to be really useful and spend quality time with her when I go on my own.

So there I sat in a café in Oslo airport, with 90 minutes to spare before departure and in need of a coffee as a reward for manoeuvring the two trains and 5 escalators it had taken me to get there. I got my coffee and sat down at an empty table, with most of the other tables occupied by solo, phone-absorbed travellers. Peace and quiet to get my thoughts together.

And then, the low-level drone started. It was a deep and mellow noise, not unpleasant but more than a little relentless. I quickly figured out that it was an Irish voice, female and respectfully low, murmuring into a hands-free headset. She was speaking English which is why I could so easily tune into her conversation for the next 23.5 minutes, not that I was keeping track. English is my primary and most fluent language and the one that immerses my brain most of the time.  So try as I might, I couldn’t tune out. Even though there were people sitting between us and even a couple speaking Norwegian at one stage, her dialogue was like a direct transmission to me.  All other noise was just white and fuzzy.  She was planning a Spring trip with god knows who on the other end, right down to flight options and dates. There was much to discuss as they figured out which dates would suit both of them and where they would go. Her voice seemed to amplify over time, equal and opposite to my levels of irritation at being able to hear this conversation. All I could do was hope to goodness that her friend on the other end would find an unmissable flight deal or have a toilet emergency, anything to wrap it up quickly.

It struck me then that this was a by-product of being back in the world of English. I think that it’s fair to say that near proximity to a departure gate for a flight to Dublin anywhere in the world could reasonably be said to be a little bit of Ireland. Standing in the queue for boarding, the Irish accents were many and melodic. It also struck me that the reason I was so bothered by the intrusive noise was that I was out of practice with overhearing conversations passively, you know when words just waft to your ears and form a story without you making any effort whatsoever. I’m not at the stage of this type of passive hearing in the Norwegian language, maybe never will be, which means that it’s a peaceful world in my head here in Norway.

I suppose you could say then that eavesdropping has smaller potential in Norwegian than in my native English. It takes a conscious decision and concerted effort to listen to a conversation if I want to pick up any information that I’m not meant to have, let’s say sitting on a bus or a train. The two teenagers sitting behind me talking about what they did for the weekend would never have to worry about me listening, because really, no, I mean seriously, I’m not.  Working in a school last week and  watching some Norwegian short films from the back of a classroom, it came to me that I really needed to focus in if I wanted to hear and understand dialogues. If I glanced at my phone for example, or if others distracted me by merely muttering to each other, I would likely lose that piece of the film. For me, my brain needs full focus to ingest, interpret and understand in a second language.

On raising the subject with him, the German husband who has spent twenty years out of Germany, all the while speaking English, admitted that he still has much better eavesdropping skills in German than in English. If there are Germans sitting on the other side of the office, he can’t help but tune into what they are saying, like it or not. His British colleagues can safely talk away at the same distance and he can block it out. He also said it’s virtually impossible to write say, an email in English when listening to people speaking German as it all becomes a muddle. So, if I ever want him NOT to hear me saying something (although this would indeed be a problem in reverse), I just need to turn on a German radio station. Good to know.

Then there’s the other side of it with the kids where they talk brashly and confidently in English when we are out and about here because they hear Norwegian all around them and think there is nobody listening to them, or more likely, and wrongly, that nobody can understand them. We may be on the street passing someone by and my daughter will make a nice loud comment like “He’s really bald”. Or her best one yet was  in the swimming pool changing area, when she felt the need to say “That lady’s underwear is far too small for her” . I thought I would choke but them skilfully pretended I heard nothing as I hurried her along. Hopefully passive hearing was deactivated that day for said lady also, or we’ll never know how that awful truth might have impacted confidence or underwear habits.

I had a great few days at home in Ireland although as ever, it’s brutally hard to leave when Mom is wondering why I have to go and why I can’t stay there with her. I’ll be back again soon, for sure.

And as for my flight, I was grateful that I wasn’t sitting anywhere near super-organised talking lady on the plane although it would have given me a chance to ask her a few things, like if this would be her first time going to Madrid in March, and did she not think that Friday to Monday would be a bit short though …?


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