Overhearers and eavesdroppers

Some time ago, I had a conversation with a PhD student of mine. It was a good-humoured chat, with some laughter, via an internet communicator, which was interrupted by someone chuckling. It turned out that our conversation was listened to by the student’s husband, who was sitting outside the view of the camera. The student immediately commented that her husband was listening in and was secretly laughing. Although I was didn’t think it was a problem at all, I thought something profound had happened.

Herbert Clark, the psychologist, devoted some of his work to types of roles which we play when communicating. He suggested that there are a number of listener roles. First, there is the addressee, in the case of the conversation I described, it was my PhD student, I was talking to her (and of course, I was the addressee when she was talking to me). There are also side participants, i.e., those who are not addressed, but are socially/interactionally ratified to listen to what is being said. The speaker is also aware of their presence (there was no such person in our conversation).

Similarly, the speaker is aware of the presence of a bystander. They are openly present, within the earshot, so they can overhear what the participants say, but they are not part of the conversation. They have no rights or responsibilities in the conversation, although they may well have an impact upon what is being said. Another overhearer role is that of an eavesdropper. This is when you are listened to by someone you are not aware of. Such a person also has no right or responsibility in the conversation, moreover, they cannot be taken into account by the speaker. When I was speaking, this is precisely who the student’s husband was.

So, why do I think this is something profound? First, the conversation, normally between two ratified participants, has been extended to one between two ratified participants and another participant (and potentially others). Second, and related, the other participant is, at least to one of the ratified participants (i.e. me), an eavesdropper. And that changes the nature of the conversation.

Now, you might be tempted to think that such a change to a good-humoured conversation with a PhD student is not exactly earthshattering news and you would be right. The problem is serious though. Over the last year or so, I have heard and read a number of stories where teachers, clinicians and patients talk about a profound change to the nature of communication they have with their students, patients/clients, clinicians/therapists. Teachers talk about parents not only eavesdropping on teaching sessions, but now and again forcing themselves into the communicative process. The most dramatic story I heard was about a parent who told the teacher off for ‘teaching wrong’ during an online class and in front of the baffled children and, needless to say, the fuming teacher.

Psychotherapy clients report problems with finding space for their therapy sessions as their living space does not allow enough privacy. I heard stories of going for an aimless ride in order to claim the time before the session for thinking and psyching up and then having the session in the car precisely in order to be able to sit on their own without worrying if someone is listening or at least hearing what is being said.

You can of course change the perspective as well. A parent eavesdropping on the online session changes the dynamics of the communication process not only for the teacher, but also for the child. Someone who overhears a therapy session is put in a potentially (very) difficult situation.

For me, however, there is another overhearer I have become acutely aware of and I can’t get used to. The overhearer is….me. I teach with my computer camera on and it has significant consequences for me. For the first time since I started teaching, I am able to watch myself in action and I positively hate it. This is because I have always gesticulated during teaching. I love waving my hand, making faces, and generally using my body as part of the performance. I have seen it a number of times when my lectures were filmed. But such viewing has always been time-delayed. Now, I am able to see myself doing all this in real time and I have become very self-conscious. Moreover, over the last months my ability to ‘do me’ in a lecture, has all but gone. Very consciously I started monitoring what I do.

I started reflecting on it and I am unhappy about this. I have always liked my way of lecturing (with mostly good feedback) and I would hate to lose it and become bland. But having to see myself on a daily basis means (or at least might mean) that I don’t know if I can ever go back to the full performing me.

I also keep hearing similar stories from therapists who see their own expressions or reactions. Yes, it can lead to some reflection and improvement, but it can also lead to much self-consciousness and artifice.

Communicatively, remote teaching or remote therapy become very different from those in physical presence of communicators. The need to be more aware of overhearers and eavesdroppers and the imposition of self-monitoring raise all sorts of clinical, educational, ethical and other questions about what we do.

But there is another aspect of remote professional communication. My favourite story is about a student who logged into his online class, but instead of participating went to have vigorous and loud sex. As he forgot to switch the microphone off, the rest of the class and his tutor were made aware of this, shall I say, educational disengagement. Just the other day, a student of mine had to remind their mum that they were in class and were not available to share mum’s excitement with the shopping.

I am also sure we all have heard the sound of conversations (and flushed toilets), we saw our students talk to others beyond the screen and other signs of ‘normal life’. In such situations, the entire group become overhearers of other communication events as, willy-nilly, we are pulled into joining communication activities people within the range of the participants’ computers.

This is yet another aspect of the change of the nature of clinical/educational communication. The rigidity of borders around clinical/educational communicative events has to a considerable extent been lost. They have become fuzzy, much less defined as they are now part of the ‘rich tapestry of life’. Life no longer stops as you go to your therapy session or to school. Daily I see people walk around students, and even careful positioning of my camera doesn’t prevent my cat (rarely) appearing on the screen. Even today, a student commented that I had a lovely cat! Every such comment reminds us that we are engaged in something very different than before.

What are the consequences of the changes? I don’t think anyone knows for certain yet what means, for example, to observe oneself teaching or doing psychotherapy. We can safely assume, however, that the changes to the channel and to the access to the channel of communication are more than likely to have impact on what is said and how it is said during the sessions, both by students/clients and teachers/therapists. We also don’t know what such changes mean for the future, I think.

And so, we don’t know what they will mean in the ‘new normal’ as we go back to schools, surgeries and psychotherapy rooms. How likely are we to simply dispose of the new controlling mechanisms we all have taken on, more or less consciously?

I keep hearing that doing a lecture online is exactly the same as it is in class – it’s just on the computer screen. Such statements are utter nonsense, I think. As I reflect on what is happening, I find the changes to be deeper and more significant than I ever imagined. Lockdowns and what they have meant for mental health and education have a very clear communicative dimension. We have significantly changed the way we communicate and I am not so sure we’ll be able to simply roll it all back as the ‘normal’ comes back. Understanding these changes and their consequences will not be easy but will certainly be important for how we proceed in the future.


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