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Out-of-Context Eavesdropping
A little information is a dangerous thing. If a character overhears an acquaintance saying about him, "I'm gonna kill that guy tomorrow..." and walks away before she finishes, "...at basketball," well, he's missed a pretty important bit of context that drastically affects the meaning of that statement. And if he assumes that she literally means to murder him and starts taking precautions as if that were the case, he's going to wind up looking very foolish at the absolute least.

This trope is a Narrative Device in which an eavesdropper hears part of a statement or conversation out of context and leaps to the wrong conclusion. It is a very specific aversion of Exact Eavesdropping which was popularized, on television at least, by Three's Company, but is Older Than Dirt. Often Lampshaded or Subverted, but just as often played straight, making it a bit of an Undead Horse Trope.

Often a form of Contrived Coincidence. A common source of Third Act Misunderstanding. Compare One Dialogue, Two Conversations, a similar trope without the eavesdropping, and Poor Communication Kills, where the speaker and not the listener is at fault for the misunderstanding. See also: Bathroom Stall of Overheard Insults, One Side of the Story, Not What It Looks Like. Can result in half or more of the entries on the Mistaken for Index.


Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • Mahou Sensei Negima! has a couple of these.
    • Most obviously when a bunch of the girls overhear Friendly Neighborhood Vampire Evangeline requesting that Negi pay for that day's training session, which goes something along these lines:
      Evangeline: Hurry and whip it out, boy!
      Negi: But Evangeline-san, we already did it, it's too much!
      Evangeline: I told you, call me master.
    By the way, the payment was sucking blood from his arm.
    • Later on, Chachamaru nearly causes Chisame's head to explode with this poorly worded statement about Negi's martial arts training.:
      Chachamaru: I have been serving as Negi's partner every night and he seems to be happy about it.
  • In Silver Spoon, Tokiwa overheard Hachiken and Yoshino talking about "taking responsibility" and started a rumor about them having a sexual relationship. They were talking about raising a pig.
  • Ranma : In the "Tunnel of Lost Love" OVA episode, Ryouga teams up with Ukyo; in another attempt to split Ramna and Akane. The plan backfires due to Ryouga repeatedly defending Akane from the spirits inside, which causes Ukyo to become upset with him and leads Akane to misinterpret it as jealousy. This sets up the scene where Ryouga apologizes and is dragged off by Ukyo; so they can speak in private. Akane then tells Ranma her suspicions about Ukyo's feelings for Ryouga, prompting them to follow and eavesdrop, in time to overhear the following exchange:
    Ryouga: (to Ukyo;) Please, I give you my word of honor!
    Ukyo: (petulantly) How can I trust you?
    Ryouga: We can start over, can't we? I'll never betray you again.
    Ukyo: If only I could believe you were telling the truth...
    (Ranma and Akane gasp in realization and sneak away)
    Akane: I knew it! Ranma they're... THOSE TWO ARE IN LOVE!!
    Ranma: (dramatically amidst fireworks display) WELL WADDYA KNOW!?
  • In Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun, Miyako's fellow college students are unaware she's a mangaka, so when one of them takes a look at Miyako's notes she thinks she's got a boyfriend. Later, she comes across Miyako, Nozaki and Sakura talking about their manga problems, and assumes it's a conversation about a break-up.

    Comic Books 
  • In "The Power of the Press" in Mad House Comic Digest #5 a member of a betting syndicate was accidentally run over by one of the main characters and woke up in their apartment just in time to overhear them discussing what to do with the "dead fish on ice" - i.e., the one in the refrigerator. After escaping, he complained to his boss that "They were as casual as if they were talking about lunch!"

    Comic Strips 
  • Used in an infamous storyline in the Popeye comic strip; A woman overhears Olive Oyl talking about getting rid of a baby robot a home shopping channel had mistakenly sent her and assumes she's talking about getting rid of her (unborn) baby and quickly assembles a crew of her cohorts to talk her out of it. Although there was little negative feedback from readers or newspapers, the artist behind this strip was soon fired (The official reason being that the artist had gone too far in trying to include modern elements into such a legacy strip. The "abortion" strip was merely the last straw).

     Fanfiction 
  • In the Lord of the Rings fanfic At the End of All Things, Sam overhears Frodo claiming that he should have never let someone come on the quest with him, and how he wishes that they'd remained in Mount Doom. Sam thinks that Frodo is talking about him and is heartbroken (Frodo's really talking about Gollum).
  • The sequel to The Dark Lords Of Nerima has Luna go to the Tendo Dojo to gather information on the eponymous Dark Lords. There, she overhears Ranma and Akane talking about the usual chaos that afflicts Nerima, and an upcoming meeting with the Sailor Senshi to try and sort out misunderstanding, but since she misses key portions of the conversation, she becomes more convinced than ever that Ramna intends to take over the world and the meeting with the Senshi is a trap.

    Films — Animation 
  • In the first Shrek film Shrek is about to confess his love to Fiona, when he overhears Fiona talking to Donkey, saying that no-one could love a monster like an ogre. Of course, he is unaware that she is talking about the curse that turns her into an ogre, which she conveniently doesn't explicitly mention again until just after Shrek gets disgusted and leaves.
  • In Hercules, Phil overhears Hades discussing his plans to destroy Hercules with Megara, the girl Herc is in love with. He immediately leaves to warn Herc, and misses the part where Meg refuses to go along with Hades' plan any more.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In This Is the End, when Emma Watson is the only female in the house, the cast discusses making sure that she's comfortable and doesn't feel like she's in danger from them. However, since she's in the next room, she can make out half the conversation so she thinks that they're discussing who gets to rape her. This leads to her violently leaving the house.
  • In the 1947 comedy Copacabana, Lionel and Carmen have made up a fake stage persona, Mlle. Fifi. When they decide to dump the persona, an old woman hears them joking about it and misinterprets them as saying that they murdered Fifi (who no-one else knows was just Carmen in a veil with a French accent). Hilarity Ensues.
  • A scene from Look Who's Talking has James pulling out a splinter from Molly's finger. Her mother overhears and assume they're having sex. When James comes out, he zips his fly.
  • In White Christmas, nosy housekeeper Emma has a habit of eavesdropping on phone conversations. She hears Ed Harrison (an Ed Sullivan expy) planning to bring General Waverly on his show, and immediately hangs up her phone receiver to tell the Love Interest... and misses the hero (Bing Crosby as George Wallace) rejecting this scheme.
  • In Down with Love, a secretary overhears Ewan McGregor and David Hyde Pierce discussing a new kind of sock that obviates the need for sock garters in such a way as to mistake them for comparing penises. "It stays up all day long!" and "Well, how long does a man's hose need to be?" are just a few examples.

    Literature 
  • Harry Potter
    • In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Harry overhears what seems to be Snape forcing Quirrell to help him steal the Stone. It turns out Quirrell was after the Stone and Snape, suspecting as much, was trying to scare him into giving up on it.
    • In book six, it turns out Snape was the one who told the prophecy to Voldemort, which lead him to try to kill Harry. However, he only heard the part labeling Harry, and not why he would be dangerous, leading to his initial downfall.

    Live-Action TV 
  • This premise was the plot of roughly 2/3s of the episodes of Three's Company.
  • Diff'rent Strokes: In an early episode Willis & Arnold (black) plan to run away because they overhear their adopted father (white) saying that black boys should be put with black families, thinking that he didn't want them; but he didn't believe in that, he was telling someone else what a white social worker said to him before he threw her out.
  • Justified in an Angel episode. Cordelia is magically shown several conversations her teammates have about her by the demon Skip, all of them seemingly very insulting towards her. However, Skip is actually deliberately showing her very specific parts of the conversations taken out of context for his own agenda.
  • Averted in Little Mosque on the Prairie: Fatima overhears a conversation between Rayyan and JJ — "why not do it now, we're gonna do it after the wedding anyway..." "after the wedding, I want to do it right in front of my parents!" — and correctly guesses that they're talking about when they should open their wedding presents.
  • The out-of-theater plot to the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Mitchell revolves around this. The Mads have hired Mike Nelson to help with an inventory of the Deep-13 lab beneath the Gizmonic Institute, but they find him insufferable and decide to kill him. Gypsy overhears them plotting and comes to the conclusion that they're plotting the death of Joel and spends the rest of the episode plotting to help Joel escape the Satellite of Love. Thus did Joel leave the series and was replaced by Mike.
  • Happens during Earl's coma fantasy in My Name Is Earl. Earl is the star of a 1950's style Dom Com in his head, and he is married to a friend's ex-girlfriend that Earl was attracted to. She is pregnant, and conversing with Joy (their next-door neighbor) about a really awesome guy. Earl thinks she's talking about a gigolo...it turns out she's referring to a doctor.
  • In the Babylon 5 episode "Rumors, Bargains and Lies", Delenn and Neroon are in private conference onboard a ship discussing how to resolve the Minbari Civil War. Delenn says that neither the Warrior Caste nor the Religious Caste should be allowed to win the war because it would unbalance society—but a Religious Caste member walks by the room and hears only the part that the Religious caste should not win the war. He thus concludes that Delenn is betraying her caste and surrendering the war to Neroon's Warrior Caste, which leads to the Religious Caste members (who crew the ship they are travelling on) to plot to sabotage the ship's life support so that it doesn't reach Minbar.
  • In an episode of The Black Adder a couple of knights overhear the king talking to his wife saying how satisfied he is with the current Archbishop, and won't ever again have to say "will no one rid me of this Turbulent Priest?" Unfortunately they only hear that last part where he's quoting himself, so they go off to slay the Archbishop to get in the king's good graces.

    Puppet Shows 
  • In an episode of The Muppet Show, Fozzie keeps hearing remarks that sound like the others want to get rid of him and only Gonzo is on his side. Of course, we know that the bear in question is Gonzo's teddy bear, but Fozzie doesn't find this out until the end of the episode, when Kermit reassures him that he never intends to fire Fozzie.

    Webcomics 
  • In Scary Go Round, Desmond overheard Shelley and Amy talking (jokingly) about how Ryan ought to leave, and misunderstood them as talking about him, causing him to run away. (Link)
  • The Order of the Stick: Miko overheard Lord Shojo discussing the fact that he told his paladins some lies, and concluded that he betrayed the city. He actually told those lies because the paladins are so traditional, they wouldn't let him do what he thought was needed to save the whole world.

    Western Animation 
  • In The Simpsons episode "My Pods and Boomsticks," Homer, who is prejudiced against the new Muslim family, hears the father talking about his demolition job. Unfortunately, the parts of the conversation that Homer hears makes it sound like he is a suicide bomber.
    • In another episode, Marge listens in on Bart and Milhouse playing a card game and thinks Bart is dealing drugs. Lampshaded, where she mentions that she's listens to it out of context.
    • Lisa in the episode "Dude, Where's My Ranch" overhears her cowboy crush talking to a girl named Clara and thinks she's his girlfriend. She finds out the truth, that Clara's his sister...but not before her jealousy gets the better of her and she sends Clara down a dangerous trail.
  • In Kim Possible, Ron Stoppable breaks into his girlfriend's house, then her closet, steals her super battle suit, joins the football team as star quarterback, gets caught with the suit and controlled by a villain, ends up in a physical and emotional fight with Kim, then ends up on the team anyway (and is still a star player just in a different position), all because he thought Kim was going to take Bonnie's advice about "trading up" to a socially acceptable jock boyfriend. Ron then overheard Kim talking with Monique about trading up and agreeing with Bonnie. Turns out they were talking about a new mobile phone.
  • The Thomas the Tank Engine episode Percy's Big Mistake had Percy overhearing The Fat Controller say something about scrap and thought it meant he was to be scrapped (he's a steam engine). The Fat Controller actually said that Percy was working to hard recently and so after taking some scrap metal to the smelters he would be given the somewhat easier job of carrying the mail for a week.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic:
    • In "Party of One", Pinkie Pie overhears everypony else in the Mane Six planning something without her, and they even say at one point "If Pinkie Pie finds out, everything will be ruined!" She concludes that they don't want her as a friend anymore, but they are really just throwing a surprise party in her honor.
    • In "For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils", Sweetie thinks her older sister, Rarity, deliberately upstaged her at her own birthday party: when Sweetie made her big entrance to the party, the guests were all distracted by cake and party favors that Rarity had just handed out, and they were saying "Who even needs the birthday girl?" Sweetie Belle only discovers the context years later: the guests were bored from waiting for Sweetie's entrance, so Rarity passed out the cake and party favors as a last-ditch effort to keep them from leaving, and when the guests praised her, she responded that the party swag were all Sweetie's doing.
  • In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Model Sponge", SpongeBob overhears Mr. Krabs talking about how it's time for him to "let the little guy go", and assumes he's getting laid off from the Krusty Krab. After SpongeBob leaves the restaurant to find a new job, however, the audience sees that the "little guy" Mr. Krabs was referring to is actually a scallop. SpongeBob, of course, doesn't know this until he returns to the Krusty Krab near the end, asking Mr. Krabs not to fire him.
  • On a Muppet Babies episode, the kids overhear Nanny talking on the phone saying, "I must get rid of one of them." The kids think she is talking about them, but it turns out she was talking about an old chair.
  • Happens a few times in Hey Arnold!. In one episode Arnold mistakenly thinks his teacher is in love with him when she's actually talking about her fiance with the same name, and another time he and Gerald think Mr. Green the butcher's life is in danger when a few people say they're going to "get him" (they're actually planning a birthday party for him).


Only the Knowledgable May PassInformation DeskPerp Sweating
Not a ZombieContrived Stupidity TropesPaper-Thin Disguise
Mundanity TropesThis Index Is Highly ImprobablePlot Hole
Or So I HeardDialogueOverwhelming Exception
Not What It Looks LikeMistaken for IndexPoor Communication Kills
Our Vampires Are DifferentUndead Horse TropePoor Man's Porn
Out-of-Clothes ExperienceNarrative DevicesOvercome Their Differences
One Degree of SeparationSuspiciously Convenient IndexPlot Tailored to the Party
One Side of the StoryPoor Communication KillsRage Against the Mentor

alternative title(s): Three Is Company; Overhearing Misunderstanding
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