Is "Eavesdropping" and "Listening in on" different? and if they are in which context should I be using each expression?

listen in (on something) — phrasal verb with listen us ​ /ˈlɪs·ən/ verb [ I ] to listen to someone's conversation when the person does not realize you are doing it:

She thinks her boss is listening in on her phone conversations.


to secretly listen to a conversation.

"she opened the window just enough to eavesdrop on the conversation outside"

  • 2
    Please always include the source of dictionary definitions (or anything, really) you quote in your post. Thank you!
    – user3395
    Mar 31, 2019 at 18:17
  • Google "Emotive conjugation" ... "It's one of those irregular verbs, isn't it? I have an independent mind, You are eccentric, He is round the twist."
    – Shane
    Apr 1, 2019 at 3:47

2 Answers 2


"Listen in" is like "take", while "eavesdrop" is like "steal". For example:

She took a pencil from her coworker's desk

Without context it's impossible to say whether she is taking the pencil illicitly, or taking it because it's convenient. But if you say:

She stole a pencil from her coworker's desk

she clearly knows she's doing something wrong.

In the same way, if you "listen in" on a conversation, you're not necessarily doing anything wrong. It mostly depends on whether the speakers know they are being overheard, or if they expect privacy. For example:

Sitting alone in the cafe, she listened in on the conversations around her. Particularly interesting was a young couple quietly fighting over a pile of unwashed dishes, which apparently one of them had promised to do some days ago.

In this context, "listen in" is slightly naughty, but since it's a public cafe there's not really any expectation that conversations will be private. However, if instead you wrote:

Sitting alone in the cafe, she eavesdropped on the conversations around her.

This is definitely naughty, as she knows the conversations are not meant for her ears, but she's listening anyway. Same context, different nuance.

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    And to add a completely positive example. "New employee Sam was listening in on the customer call to gain an understanding of the process but she wasn't yet experienced enough to be an active participant" Apr 1, 2019 at 12:22
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    Does this mean that when a law enforcement officer listens in via a wiretap, it's not eavesdropping if there is a warrant? I always considered "eavesdropping" to be in regards to the speakers' knowledge/consent rather than the legality of the listening in.
    – Flater
    Apr 1, 2019 at 12:52
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    @Flater This really has little to do with any kind of absolute right or wrong, but rather what the writer wants to imply. If you write that the police "eavesdrop" on a conversation, it implies they're doing something wrong, even if it's for a good reason. In the grand scheme of things "eavesdropping" is not particularly naughty, much like a "little white lie".
    – Andrew
    Apr 1, 2019 at 15:23
  • There's also "overhear". I would say if you were in a cafe or a train and heard what people around you were saying, without any special effort on your part, then you overheard them, you didn't eavesdrop. Apr 2, 2019 at 9:36

They're very similar. I would say that eavesdropping always carries the connotation that the listener is doing something a little wrong; they haven't been invited to any part of the conversation.

Listen in on can have that negative inflection, but it can also refer to something more neutral: "I have my assistant listening in on this conference call to take notes."

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