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Is It Eavesdropping To Overhear Someone’s Rude Comments About You?

I was recently reminded of two cases in which I was the topic of another person’s rude remarks, which led me to wonder — what does etiquette have to say about these instances?

In the first situation, I attended a visitation for the family member of a close friend. I was heavily pregnant at the time, about a week away from giving birth. As I visited with a few members the family, another guest arrived and approached the family. Very loudly and in almost a disgusted tone, she said “Oh my gosh, is she (meaning me) going to have a baby right here in the aisle?” I think I probably laughed awkwardly, then chose not to hear and chalked it up to people saying strange things when they’re mourning.

In the second story, I was in the waiting to get my hair cut while another stylist was consulting with a new client about five feet away. Evidently the client had requested a perm or something similar, because the stylist was trying to talk her out of it. It only caught my attention when the stylist said “After all, you don’t want to end up looking like a shaggy sheep dog, like her.” At this point the stylist actually looked and gestured directly toward me.

Now, I have natural curls that admittedly had gotten a bit overgrown — hence the haircut! — but I was embarrassed to be so obviously made into another client’s cautionary tale. I’m not a confrontational person and again said nothing, but looking back in this case, I do wish I had calmly said something either to the stylist or to the salon owner about her remarks.

Which brings me to my original question: in what circumstances does etiquette excuse eavesdropping, or addressing what you’ve unintentionally overheard? 0522-18

{ 47 comments }

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  • Marie August 2, 2018, 3:55 am

    I think there’s a very clear line: if you unintentionally hear something said while you are around, say something about it. It’s rude on their part.

    It’s eavesdropping when you deliberately try to listen into a conversation without the people talking knowing you are listening. This is rude on your part.

  • lkb August 2, 2018, 3:57 am

    In story number two, I hope that if it had been me, I would have walked out of the salon immediately at the very least and/or spoken with the salon’s manager. In the moment, it’s hard to know what to do though.

    • Wild Irish Rose August 2, 2018, 9:45 am

      I once went to a stylist to whom I was referred by a friend. He couldn’t stop “marveling” over my hair color; the sarcasm was almost palpable: “Oh, my dear, this it the most NATURAL color I’ve ever seen!” And when someone else actually complimented the color, he said, “Oh, can’t you TELL it’s NATURAL??” I finally told him that I had come there to get my hair cut, not to listen to him go on like an ass about the color. I never went back to him. I also told my friend about it, and she stopped going to see him, too. Last I heard of him, he had had a nervous breakdown. Probably from getting yelled at by customers he had insulted.

    • It's Me August 2, 2018, 3:20 pm

      Wait a minute! You would have walked out of the salon immediately? Why? From the story, I inferred that the stylist who made the rude remark was not the OP’s stylist. Why would you run out on your own stylist at the last minute when he/she hadn’t done anything wrong? If you were a hairstylist, would you like it if your clients ran out the door right before you were going to work on them because someone else made a nasty remark?

      • E.D. August 3, 2018, 6:30 am

        If my coworkers were assholes to customers, I would expect those customers to leave.

      • JenAnn August 3, 2018, 10:43 am

        There is no obligation to give your business to an establishment that employs people who are rude and insulting and make their clients uncomfortable. It’s unfortunate for the other stylist, but the salon has a problem they need to fix….that’s not the poster’s problem and she shouldn’t feel obligated to stay.

        • wanda August 16, 2018, 2:26 pm

          Haircutters are often independent contractors who pay a salon to cut hair there. If that’s the case, they have no control over who their coworkers are.

  • MzLiz August 2, 2018, 4:03 am

    What you’ve described isn’t eavesdropping, it’s being within ear-shot of someone running their mouth & making derogatory comments about you – and you happen to not be deaf. A simple, “You realize I can hear you, right?” would probably work. If not, I see no reason you shouldn’t inform the person that they’ve offended you. (“But I didn’t mean to!” – “Well, it hurt just as much as if you did mean to”)

    There’s not much you can do about the person at the funeral but honestly, you’d be well within your rights to call that salon & have a word with the manager or owner. That stylist was unprofessional in the extreme & were I the boss, I’d want to know about this incident. I’d be very grateful you came to me personally instead of posting a damaging review online after your awful experience. I’m not one to call for a manager at the drop of a hat but if an employee intentionally embarrassed me like this (and between the comments & the gesturing, it absolutely was intentional), I’d not only complain, I wouldn’t darken the door of the salon again without a huge apology & some kind of financial amends.

    • Bada August 2, 2018, 10:11 am

      “You realize I can hear you, right?”

      I love how versatile that is! No need to come up with something witty or snippy in the moment. Just call them out and see how they react. Maybe even with an apology!?

      • MzLiz August 2, 2018, 3:51 pm

        Thanks, Bada! I’ve learned that sometimes when you make a witty, biting retort in response to another person’s rudeness, YOU end up looking like the Bad Guy. In certain situations it’s worth it but it can also backfire on you. Being quick with a comeback isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.

        I’m fairly athletic but have one of those body types that, no matter what, I’m going to have a bit of a pooch & I can be sensitive about it, esp. when I was younger. Once when hanging out with some friends in my 20’s, this girl made a comment about my stomach (“You’ll have to do something about that! Hee hee!”) while poking me in my belly. Yeah… Immediately I said, “Sure, and while we’re at it, we should get you a better anti-wrinkle cream for those crow’s feet of yours” (knowing that was HER sore spot).

        WELL! I thought turnabout was fair play but NOPE! I was the Mean Girl, even though she drew first blood. 😉 At the time, it made me even angrier to know that she was considered the injured party when I felt it was a case of ‘don’t dish it out if you can’t take it’. Now that I’m older & wiser, I try to keep it simple so there can be NO doubt who the Rude-O is.

    • gramma dishes August 2, 2018, 8:05 pm

      The bizarre part is that even the client he was with was probably horrified by the hairdresser’s behavior and she probably never went back to him either!

  • Catherine St. Clair August 2, 2018, 5:51 am

    I, too, can think of times that I did not speak up and now wish I had. I don’t think you were eavesdropping in either case. The woman at the visitation made her comment in a loud voice. You would not have been out of place to tell her that you are a traditionalist and would have your child at a hospital so she need not worry herself about it. In the second situation, you were only five feet away and she gestured at you. In that case, I would have gone to the owner, asked to speak to her and to the stylist together, and explained that I would not patronize an establishment that used me as an example of a shaggy sheep dog. Let the owner handle it from there. Her employee is her problem.

  • Jinx August 2, 2018, 6:03 am

    I think that it’s difficult to have a private conversation in public, regardless of anything. I really only “count” it as eavesdropping if people are clearly trying to speak in hushed tones, and hearing them is more avoidable.

    If these people made themselves heard by you, they weren’t even trying to not be heard.

    That really ticks me off. Why would anyone be rude or cruel like that? It’s like they wanted you to hear and say something.

    If that happened to me at a hairdresser, I’d definitely let the manager know it’s a poor way to speak about paying customers.

  • at work August 2, 2018, 6:10 am

    If you overhear something, you can’t help but hear it. Eavesdropping is intentionally tuning in to someone who is speaking, but not to you, and you try to hear it and make out what they’re saying. Like leaning forward in a car because you want to get in on the private conversation between your son and his wife. Or stopping in the hallway to listen to voices in a room. Used to be that you could pick up the extension phone. OP overheard. IMO it would be appropriate to say something to the owner about the hair stylist’s remark. Etiquette would probably be more concerned about what you
    say and how you say it than whether you say something at all in the second situation.

  • sillyme August 2, 2018, 6:56 am

    Funeral: “Well, my dear, they call it the circle of life for a reason.”
    Salon: “Better a shaggy dog than a hissing cat.”

    Both in my finest, authentic Southern (U.S.) drawl, of course.

  • Yuchin Robb August 2, 2018, 7:12 am

    I think etiquettes should only be applicable to sane people of good intentions.
    In the first case, people made crude comment to show other how disgusting they are. Not about you, that woman simply cannot miss a chance to disgrace herself.
    In the second scenario, you didn’t get up and walk away, bringing your business elsewhere? Then it’s all on you. You don’t have to say anything or create confrontation, bringing your business elsewhere is the best response.
    I wish I could have done so one time when I was at a salon. The stylist, to her assistant, pointed at the back of my head and joked about how flat my head was. Yes and she did it without any concerns that I was literally within earshot. I wish I could have just got of the chair and walked.
    Just like you, I didn’t say anything to this rude and petty woman, however she never saw my business again.

  • Emmy August 2, 2018, 7:16 am

    You are not easedropping, you happened to be within earshot of people saying rude comments. I wish you had said something about the salon person, the salon owner deserves to know how their employees are talking about their customers.

  • AMC August 2, 2018, 7:35 am

    In both cases, it seems neither person was making any attempt to conceal the remarks from you. Either they didn’t care or they wanted you to hear them. Pretending like you didn’t hear them can be a good strategy for handling this type of situation (like at the wake). But in the case of the salon, I think I would have gotten up and left. No way am I giving my money to a business where the staff openly insults the customers!

  • JD August 2, 2018, 7:53 am

    In story one, I think I would have turned and stared straight at the person who said that. Perhaps I would have also said, “No need to worry, I won’t.” But I definitely would have stared. That was rude, grief or not. Even at funerals where my heart is breaking, it has never occurred to me to make a rude remark about one of the other mourners.
    In story two, the stylist must have meant for you to hear — you were even pointed out. That’s where the frosty “I beg your pardon?” is handy, and then, yes, speak to the owner right then, or if that is not possible, at some point soon. That was not good customer relations on the part of the stylist, and the salon needs to know about it.

  • Michelle August 2, 2018, 7:56 am

    You were not eavesdropping- people said something about you within earshot. Eavesdropping is when you intentionally try to hear a conversation that you are not a part of.

    The example in the salon- I absolutely would not have let that passed. You were a customer and you being used as an example of a “shaggy sheep dog” is very rude and appalling.

  • Lori August 2, 2018, 7:57 am

    If it were me in story #2 I would have said (in the same volume as the stylist) “I know my hair is overgrown, that’s why I’m here. Apparently you only want perfectly coiffed customers walking in; either it’s because you don’t know how to cut curly hair or you don’t need the business. Either way, I don’t think I’ll need the services of this salon.”
    And then leave….it’s it’s your regular stylist, she’ll have a “come to Jesus” talk with the offending stylist for making her lose money that day, and call you back for another appointment.

  • Vic August 2, 2018, 8:00 am

    In my area, most salons just rent out chairs to stylists. They don’t employ them. So, it would do no good to complain to the owner if that’s the case. I might have pointed out that I had naturally curly hair, not a perm, and that I would think that a competent stylist would be able to tell the difference.

    • Lenore August 2, 2018, 8:18 am

      I respectfully disagree. They can choose not to rent a chair out to that stylist again. Employee or no, that kind of behaviour casts a pall over their business.

    • Leigh August 2, 2018, 8:30 am

      But it would do some good to let the owner know. Their livelihood depends on the stylists making enough money to cover their booth rent. If one stylist is consistently driving away business, either from herself or other stylists, she’s bad for the overall business, and the owner can choose to liberate her from the confines of that particular salon and promote her to customer status, freeing up a booth to be rented by someone more customer friendly.

  • KarenK August 2, 2018, 8:30 am

    My opinion? I don’t see why you had to be particularly kind to the lady at the funeral. She certainly wasn’t kind to you. If you didn’t feel you could say anything (and I can totally see why), I think JD’s response of simply staring at her until she becomes uncomfortable is the way to go. I’m also a fan of, “You know I can hear you, right?”

    As for #2, the first thing I thought of was, “Did you just call me a dog?”, followed by speaking to the manager, followed by taking my business elsewhere, if I did not get a satisfactory response. I really don’t think it does much good to just go somewhere else without at least A) telling them why, and B) giving them the opportunity to make it right.

  • Susan. Haverland August 2, 2018, 9:15 am

    No you were not evesdropping . I would be mad and say something in both instances. 1. About the rude baby remark. Really I would say. Do you want to say that again ? My goodness what a rude comment. I came here for my friend for support. 2. Absolutely walk out of that salon . Tell the manager first . Who needs to be laughed a. Don’t go there again . Remember you are beautiful and just want a nice haircut. Have a happier day .

  • Vermin8 August 2, 2018, 9:17 am

    Overhearing something that was spoken in public is not eavesdropping. I get very irritated with people who speak loudly in public then complain if others overhear. Most of those “eavesdroppers” would prefer that the conversation remain unheard.

    In the case of the funeral, I suspect the speaker thought they were being funny but it was the wrong time and place.

    In the second case, the stylist was way out of line to insult a customer. I would have been tempted to counter insult (hey it’s much better than your flat cut!) but I recognize that would have been an etiquette violation. It’s too bad the customer to whom she was speaking didn’t say something since apparently she was asking for something similar. Which reminds me of one of my huge pet peeves with some (fortunately not all) stylists – their opinion trumps yours. These are the ones that cut off 4” when you specified ½” because they are convinced it will look better.

    • CherylAC August 2, 2018, 7:15 pm

      I had had my hair cut, colored and permed at a salon and went back several times until the owner was cutting my hair after a color and took off 3″ after I had said I just wanted the ends trimmed. I was growing out my hair for my wedding which was 2 months away. By the time I noticed what he was doing, it was too late. I complained and said I had just asked for a trim of the ends because I wanted my hair long for my wedding. His response was it was still long (it was shoulder length, which was not what I considered long). I paid the bill and never went back. I can’t grow 3″ of hair in 2 months.

  • many bells down August 2, 2018, 9:44 am

    Once I was shopping and went to check out in the “12 Items or Less” line. A couple of my items were larger, so I’d gotten a cart. A couple got behind me in line as I was about to unload and loudly said “Huh. I thought this was 12 items or less. I guess SOME PEOPLE can’t COUNT!”

    So I counted my items out loud as I placed them on the belt. I had 10. The couple suddenly “remembered” they’d forgotten to get something and took off.

    • Secret Sauce August 2, 2018, 5:37 pm

      This comment made me so happy. Good for you!

    • Mags August 5, 2018, 2:42 pm

      Oh, I wish I’d thought of this. One time I was in the express lane with a full cart and someone made a snippy remark about it. My full cart was two large boxes of diapers and three other small items.

  • Pat August 2, 2018, 10:12 am

    Comment at funeral – I think just giving the woman a good hard stare is enough. Out of respect for the feelings of the mourning family, I would not take it any farther than that. Comment at Salon: I would not walk out – this would punish my regular stylist and would be very inconvenient for me. However, I think it would be appropriate to say something to the offender as well as the owner. I come to a salon to relax and be pampered – not insulted.

  • Livvy17 August 2, 2018, 10:20 am

    For the first one, I’d shrug it off, some people simply don’t realize their sense of humor isn’t shared by everyone. To me, it seems more like surprise than scorn. I suppose I might have said, “you never know!”

    For the second, I agree with the others who said to make that exchange to the owner of the salon, as well as your own stylist. If they aren’t bending over backwards with apologies and remediation, go to another salon.

    As a general rule, when I’ve overheard something rude, I usually interject with a firm “EXCUSE ME?” Then the parties either babble and apologize, or occasionally, explain how I’ve misunderstood what was said.

  • Lerah99 August 2, 2018, 10:23 am

    I had a grandmother that was TERRIBLE about eavesdropping.

    We’d be out to eat in a restaurant, and suddenly she’d stand up and walk to a table two away to interject herself into their conversation that she’d been shamelessly eavesdropping. That is rude. To just push your way into stranger’s conversations is not cool.

    Though my grandmother insisted she was just a ‘people person’ and enjoyed meeting and talking to new people. And, she ended up sending Christmas card to people all over the country that she’d met by striking up conversations with them in public.

    So if that’s what you were doing “Oh! Those strangers two tables over are talking about a book/movie/tv show/actor/etc… that I love. I simply must go over and join their conversation” – I’d be on board with saying “Don’t Do It!”

    On the other hand, I’m a very fat woman (5’4″ and 386lbs at my highest weight).

    And I was once eating out at a restaurant only to hear these two college aged women start exclaiming to each other over how incredibly fat I was and how they would just kill themselves if they were that fat.

    I had not compunction about getting up and walking over to them to say “I can hear you and, unless you’d like to say ugly things directly to my face, I’d appreciate you finding another topic to discuss.”

    When one of them sputtered that it was rude to eavesdrop, I just laughed and went back to my table. Because I knew I wasn’t the rude one in that situation.

    So in these two cases, I think you would have been ok if you’d spoken up.
    On the other hand, I know what it’s like to freeze in the moment and think later “Oh! I should have said ….”

  • staceyizme August 2, 2018, 10:25 am

    It’s not rude to stand up for yourself. Anyone foolish enough to defend ill considered or insulting ideas under the guise of “you’re eavesdropping” or “those remarks weren’t meant to be heard by you” is foolish, brash or disingenuous. Sometimes a look is sufficient. It needn’t be dramatic or prolonged. “Do go on…”, if appropriate, also serves. But removing yourself from the scene is the most universally serviceable approach. At the funeral, it would have been easy to say something to the offending party. You were probably overcome by shock, but sometimes “why would you say that?” gets the point across. At the salon, the same statement to the stylist or a manager would have been appropriate. There isn’t any excuse for insulting a client who had done nothing except to present themselves for services. It seems doubtful that the stylist had much in the way of “people skills”. Sorry to ramble, but this is a topic where a response is possible- but the kind and degree vary by the temperament of the offended party.

  • lakey August 2, 2018, 10:39 am

    As far as the first incident goes, some people seem to think they can take all kinds of liberties with a woman who’s pregnant. They get away with everything from putting their hands on a woman’s stomach, yuch, to making “jokes” about how huge she is. The woman probably thought she was being funny. A previous commenter’s suggestion to say, “You realize I can hear you,” is excellent. It lets her know that you are not pleased, without being confrontational.

    “You realize I can hear you,” would also work with the stylist. He/she needs to learn to not say insulting things about customers. I can see why the OP didn’t walk out. Sometimes it’s difficult to find a stylist who does your hair just the way you like.

    • gramma dishes August 2, 2018, 8:14 pm

      Yes, the offending stylist wasn’t her stylist. It would seem unfair to punish her own because of what another one said and did. I’d let management know though. Unless there was a very sincere apology, I wouldn’t return. Hopefully the good stylist (the LW’s) might find a better salon.

  • Harry's Mom August 2, 2018, 10:41 am

    Just like OP and in all previous replies, the common thread was “I would have…”, but when you are in the moment, you are so overcome by shock that someone could be so rude, that you are rendered speechless. At least that’s the way it is with me.

  • bopper August 2, 2018, 1:03 pm

    Other ideas:

    “Excuse me, do you realize you said that out loud?”
    or
    “Wow”

  • Bea August 2, 2018, 8:29 pm

    I’m more shocked that the person the stylist was speaking to didn’t walk out. I would never allow someone to cut my hair who treated other people like that, argh. At least you were seeing another stylist, so honestly, you would have punished the wrong person there. I do wish that management had been alerted though.

  • Raintree August 2, 2018, 11:51 pm

    That’s not eavesdropping. That’s hearing what’s said about you within earshot. You’d be fine IMO to say something to the rude person.

  • Dippy August 3, 2018, 10:21 am

    My comeback for rude comments usually is “I see those charm school classes are really paying off!”

  • Lia August 3, 2018, 1:47 pm

    I once walked by two guys and as I passed them, one said to the other: “My god, she’s uglier than your ex.” Loud enough for me to hear. I knew they were talking about me, because there was noone else in the whole street and they were eyeing me as I walked past.

    My self-esteem has always been low, but that day was definitely a new low.

    God I hate rude strangers.

    • Store manager August 4, 2018, 12:24 pm

      I feel bad for your low self-esteem. Here’s a trick and I hope it may work for you. Listen, unless such stray remarks were delivered right in front of you, staring right into your eyes, then they were not about you, whether there was anybody else in the street or not. Chances are, they might have been talking about some mutual acquaintances at work. Your extra effort to validate that they were talking about you should worry anyone who cares about you. Come on, there must be some people around you that care about you, right?

  • Jazzgirl205 August 3, 2018, 7:12 pm

    When dh and I were in our 20s, we bought our first house. I got a job as a waitress in a diner. As I was waiting on a table of four men, one of them was lamenting the state of affairs in his yacht club. As I was setting down their plates, he said, “They’d even let her join!” I looked at the other men and smiled, “He’s right. My husband and I were indeed invited to join his yacht club.” My dh had a 21 ft sailboat and had distinguished himself in more than a few regattas. No, we didn’t join.

  • T-Belle August 6, 2018, 6:42 am

    Yeah, I tend to get similar as I am a ‘little person’ and have been on the receiving end of quite a few rude remarks or name callings (either said directly or to another). A lot of the time by employees where I’m the customer (restaurants seem to be the most common).

    It’s not rude yourself if you overhear, unless as others mentioned, you were trying to listen. It’s sometimes the opposite though, as I have had instances where people have apparently made the effort to be overheard. Goodness, it’s like what’s the fun of being nasty to someone if the intended target doesn’t hear and thus there’s no reaction.

    I’m sorry it happened to you, as I face things like this myself, my heart goes out to others with having to deal with it.

  • rindlrad August 6, 2018, 6:52 pm

    Everyone develops their own way of dealing with these types of situations. Mine is overly-sweet snark.

    Situation #1 – “Oh no, I’m sure I can make it to (the vestibule, parking lot, mortician’s office, in front of the casket, or other equally outrageous location).”

    Situation #2 – “No, Darling, this isn’t a “Shaggy Sheep Dog.” You must be thinking of someone else.” (I would definitely tell my stylist what the other stylist said. The salon’s owner will want to address such a complete and total lack of tact.)

    Follow up each with, “Ya’ll have a nice day, now. Bless your heart.”