Mark Shea explains the origin, meaning and use of the expression 'shoulder-surfing'. Click below to listen:
In surfing there's a technical term for stealing somebody else's wave. It's called shoulder-surfing. It's very rude and surfers really don’t like it. Well, if you're taking money out of a cash point or ATM in American English, you should be really careful that no-one is standing too close behind you. They may be shoulder-surfing, that’s looking over your shoulder trying to watch you enter your personal identification or PIN number on the keypad. That’s one way of stealing someone’s money – then a pickpocket or mugger will steal your purse or wallet, and rush to the bank before you can cancel your cards.
Shoulder-surfing brings up some interesting cultural points. How close is too close? In Britain and the US, people like at least a metre or two of space between them and the next person – any less than that and they feel uncomfortable. But I’ve been to other countries where people stand right next to each other when they are queuing at the bank, and have no problems at all. Maybe shoulder-surfing doesn’t happen so much there. Or maybe it’s just easier!
Shoulder-surfing might also have another meaning. You know when you are at a party, talking to someone, and they don’t seem to be very interested in your conversation? They seem to be constantly looking over your shoulder, trying to find someone more interesting or attractive to talk to. They want to upgrade to someone better. Well – some people call this shoulder-surfing too! Or maybe this only happens to me …
About Mark Shea
Mark Shea has been a teacher and teacher trainer for eighteen years. He has taught English and trained teachers extensively in Asia and South America, and is a qualified examiner for the University of Cambridge oral examinations. He is currently working with journalists at the World Service and is the author of the BBC College of Journalism's online English tutor.