Of Speaking and Not Being Heard

I recently started work on a story that’s made me think about how we speak, what we say, and how and when we’re listened to. There’s an obvious disconnection between these two actions – how often do we way something, and then find out later that the person we were talking to heard something else entirely?

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see,” Henry David Thoreau said. Similarly, it’s not what you listen to that matters, it’s what you hear. And this is not some lament about how the 21st Century, with its mass communication and digital media, is more full of ‘noise’ than ever – the world has always been full of noise if that is what you decide to listen to – but rather a question of perspective.

We filter out so much of what we hear, choosing to focus on the salient points and receiving only the information that we want. The rest is discarded like packaging or decoration, nice to look at but not of any importance to us when what we really want is the goodness inside, the nutrients of whatever is being said.

But is this what our interlocutor wants? At times, yes, certainly: we need to know what time the meeting is, where it will be held and who will be there, or we want to know how much our shopping costs or how much the bill is in a restaurant. We require only the information, and anything else could be seen as a superfluous diversion from getting on with the day. Yet in the last of these, the restaurant, when a waiter or waitress asks us ‘Is everything okay for you?’ what he or she is really saying is ‘I’m just checking in because I have to, and if I do it in a pleasant and friendly way then I might get a bigger tip, and you know how much I rely on tips to boost my wages.’ When we automatically reply ‘Yes, fine thanks,’ we’re agreeing to the transaction, acting out our parts in what otherwise is a meaningless dialogue, at least in terms of the spoken language used.

If we ask a close friend or a family member the same question, however, and get the same reply, we are hearing far more than the words. We hear intonation, cadence, inflexion, tone, we receive body language and facial expressions. But do we always listen to those other forms of speech and react accordingly, or accept the phrase ‘Yes, fine thanks,’ and carry on going about our business?

Or, to put it another way, when you speak to someone you care about, would you like them to hear you? Are you so keen to tell them exactly what it is that ails you that you use a multitude of interconnected languages to try to get your message across? And if that person doesn’t hear you and fails to respond are you left unsatisfied, frustrated, uncared for in return? There’s a sense here of action and reaction, of point and counterpoint, of call and response. Imagine then how that cherished person would feel if the roles were reversed, and you didn’t hear what they were saying to you.

People choose to talk to us for many reasons, in many different circumstances, and through many different forms of communication. I’m trying to ask myself, in writing this story and thinking through my characters’ actions, how I’d like to be heard in those various situations, especially in the intimate, private moments when I need nothing more than for someone to listen carefully to what I’m saying. If I can manage that, or at least am able to consider some of those thousands of times when I’ve not listened properly, then perhaps I can be better at allowing others to be heard. I don’t just need to admire the decoration, important though such nuances may be, I need to hear the contents inside.

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