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Sarah Tomlinson

Hanging With: Barbara Wallraff

“They’re talking in Japanese — that won’t work,” Barbara Wallraff said as she sidled up to a conversation taking place in Harvard Square on a sunny afternoon. The contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic Monthly was trying to overhear bits of people’s back and forths, a habit she picked up to enhance her writing.

The neighborhood was packed with an exuberant lunchtime crowd, and Wallraff soon encountered another opportunity to eavesdrop. “Cellphone conversations are great,” she said, sliding toward a person excitedly talking into a phone.

“Another Japanese speaker,” she said. “All right, that’s not Japanese, but Croatian or something.”

That’s the problem with trying to catch conversational tidbits in a neighborhood near Harvard University, MIT, and a plethora of biotech companies with a wealth of international employees: Many conversations are spoken in a language other than English.

But other than the occasional language barrier, Wallraff’s sneaky operation was going pretty smoothly.

It doesn’t hurt that Wallraff just might be the last person you’d suspect of spying. The writer, whose popular “Word Fugitives” column yielded a book of the same name last spring, has the smart, stylish look of an art history professor: She wears glasses and has a lightly feathered blond bob, and on this day of eavesdropping, she was dressed in a satin-trimmed, off-white blazer. Hardly someone to arouse suspicion, even when she’s lurking around Harvard Square with her ear bent toward other people’s conversations.

She passed by several empty tables at the Campo de Fiori lunch counter in the Holyoke Center Arcade in favor of a seat right next to a group of diners, and they barely looked up. They certainly didn’t suspect that she had per pad and pen poised, ready to capture any juicy interactions.

The tendency to spy on others began during a year-long fiction class that Wallraff took at Harvard’s Neiman Foundation with Anne Bernays. As part of their weekly assignments, Bernays asked her students to bring in bits of accurately recorded conversation that they had overheard between classes. The purpose of the assignment was to get students listening to and thinking about the ways that people really talk to one another, and what they tend to talk about, in order to write more convincing dialogue. Wallraff decided to take the fiction class after finding herself at a professional crossroads. The offices of The Atlantic Monthly, where she had worked for 23 years, were relocated to Washington, D.C., last year, and Wallraff opted to stay in Boston. “I was worried that I was coming down with the all – work and no – play syndrome, where something that you really love starts to feel like a chore,” Wallraff said over a lunch of flatbread pizza. “[The class] gave me the chance to think about language in a new way, and the more creative aspects of it.”

It seemed counterintuitive to talk while trying to overhear what others were saying, but Wallraff said this was actually a great way to deflect attention from yourself. “One of the techniques is to pretend to have a conversation,” she said. “Just a little bit of a murmur to put them at ease.”

But even with a bag full of ploys, eavesdropping proved to be a hit-or-miss activity. Wallraff had a well-planned lunchtime itinerary that included moving from the closely packed tables at Campo de Fiori to the crowded sidewalks of Harvard Square, then into the bustling Peet’s Coffee & Tea and out onto a bench in the park. But there weren’t many English-language conversations worthy of recording. “We haven’t really had any fabulous stories today, have we?” she said. “And lunchtime is the best time, because it’s crowded.”

And then it happened — the moment she’d been waiting for. In a lounge at the Kennedy School of Government she heard a man break out into an animated mix of Spanish and English. Right at the end, he unleashed a mysterious but enticing phrase: “Rational expectations, no?”

Out came Wallraff’s pad and pen.

“That’s interesting; I’m going to write that down,” she said. “That’s my favorite so far. But I don’t know how I would use that in fiction.”

Of course, as she had come to learn after a year of eavesdropping , sometimes it wasn’t what she heard and how she could use it that was valuable, it was the experience of examining language on the street level. “Getting out in the world and listening to people talk in a very unscripted way is really a treat for me,” Wallraff said.

And then she cocked her ear, ready to discover the next conversational gem.