I believe I've mentioned in passing, though I haven't previously given it its own post in the notorious Why I don't learn Chinese series, that one of the things I most enjoy about not knowing much Chinese is not being bothered by other people's conversations all the time. In any country in the world, a great part of the conversation surrounding you in public places is crude, dumb, unfunny, and objectionably ill-informed or bigoted. I suffered from this sensation of almost continual annoyance particularly acutely during the years that I lived in South London, just before moving to China a decade ago. And it felt absolutely blissful to escape from it, to enter an environment where I was spared having the soul-crushing inanities of everyday conversation obtrude themselves into my consciousness all the time.
The curious thing is I've found myself similarly insulated from the background babble now that I'm back in the UK. Part of this might be that there are a lot of foreigners around (in the centre of Oxford, tourists and language students probably outnumber the locals two or three to one at this time of year), and so a lot of the chatter I overhear is still in incomprehensible foreign languages. And part of it may be that I am detuned from the English of British native speakers, grown unfamiliar with the thicker regional accents, and never been familiar with more recent slang terms and styles of speech and pop culture references: much of the 'English' I'm hearing sounds like a foreign language to me now.
But I suspect the main reason is this. When you know that the language surrounding you is going to be opaque to your understanding, you stop paying attention to it. The key to not overhearing the conversations of everyone around you is not to listen - but that is a very difficult knack to acquire. Now that I've done so, I hope I don't lose it again.
Who was it said, "I'm not an eavesdropper; I just have an Attention Surplus Disorder"? Ah yes, it was the compulsive epigrammatist Robert Brault.