Has Listening Become
a Lost Art?
Kate Murphy on the Evolving Modes of Communication
in the 21st Century
Bad listeners are not necessarily bad people. You likely have a dear friend, family member, or maybe a romantic partner who is a terrible listener. Perhaps you, yourself, are not the best listener. And you could be forgiven since, in many ways, you’ve been conditioned not to listen. Think back to when you were a little kid. If a parent said, “Listen to me!” (perhaps while holding you firmly by the shoulders), it’s a good bet you weren’t going to like what was coming next. When your teacher, Little League coach, or camp counselor beckoned, “Listen up!” what followed was usually a bunch of rules, instructions, and limits on your fun.
And certainly the virtues of listening are not reinforced by the media or in popular culture. News and Sunday talk shows are more often shouting matches or exercises in “gotcha” than respectful forums for exploring disparate views. Late-night talk shows are more about monologues and gags than listening to what guests have to say and encouraging elaboration to get beyond the trite and superficial. And on the morning and daytime shows, the interviews are typically so managed and choreographed by publicists and public relations consultants that host and guest are essentially speaking prepared lines rather than having an authentic exchange.
The dramatic portrayal of conversation on television and in the movies is likewise more often speechifying and monologues than the easy and expanding back-and-forth that listening allows. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, for example, is praised as a master of dialogue. Think of his characters’ breathless banter and verbal jousting on The West Wing, A Few Good Men, and The Social Network. His walk-and-talk scenes and epic confrontations, of which there are endless compilations on YouTube, are fun to watch and full of great lines—“You can’t handle the truth!” But instructive on how to listen so you have a mutually responsive and fulfilling conversation, they are not. All this, of course, is in the grand tradition of conversational grandstanding that dates back to the Algonquin Round Table—a group of writers, critics, and actors in the 1920s who met daily for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan to trade wisecracks, wordplay, and witticisms. Their competitive and razor-sharp repartee, which was published in major newspapers at the time, captivated the country and arguably still defines clever conversation in the popular imagination.
And yet, many of the regular members of the Round Table were profoundly lonely and depressed people, despite being part of a lively group that met almost every day. For example, the writer Dorothy Parker made three suicide attempts, and theater critic Alexander Woollcott was so beset with self-loathing that shortly before he died of a heart attack, he said, “I never had anything to say.” But then, this was not a group that listened to one another. They were not trying to truly connect with others around the table. They were just waiting for an opening, for someone to take a breath, so they could lob their verbal firecrackers.
In her more reflective later years, Dorothy Parker said, “The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loud-mouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them . . . There was no truth in anything they said. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn’t have to be any truth.”
Our political leaders are not model listeners, either. Consider the spectacle of US congressional hearings, which are not so much hearings as occasions for senators and representatives to pontificate, pander, chastise, berate, or otherwise cut off in mid-sentence whoever is unfortunate enough to appear before them. The most common feature of transcripts of congressional hearings is the all-caps insertion of the word cross-talk, which indicates everyone is talking over one another, and the transcriber, or recorder, of the debate can’t make sense of what anyone is saying.
Similarly, Prime Minister’s Questions, the weekly questioning of the British prime minister by members of Parliament, is seen as less an exercise in listening than Kabuki theater. The showboating has gotten so extreme that many MPs no longer attend. Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow told the BBC, “I think it is a real problem. A number of seasoned parliamentarians, who are not shrinking violets, not delicate creatures at all, are saying, ‘This is so bad that I am not going to take part, I am not going to come along, I feel embarrassed by it.’”Seen as efficient and data driven, looking at what’s trending on social media or conducting online surveys is largely how listening is done in the 21st century.
The blowhard factor is in part responsible for ongoing political upheaval and divisiveness both in the United States and abroad, as people feel increasingly disconnected from and unheard by those in power. Those feelings seem justified, as political leaders, the mainstream media, and the upper echelons of society were gobsmacked by the disaffection laid bare in election results, most notably the 2016 victory of President Donald J. Trump and the British vote to exit the European Union the same year. Voters did the equivalent of throwing an electoral grenade to get their leaders’ attention. Few saw it coming.
Polling proved a poor substitute for actually listening to people in their communities and understanding the realities of their everyday lives and the values that drive their decisions. Had political forecasters listened more carefully, critically, and expansively, the election results would have come as little surprise. Data derived from unrepresentative samples (i.e., people who answer unknown numbers popping up on their caller ID and who honestly answer pollsters’ questions when they do) was misleading. So, too, was media coverage that relied heavily on social media to gauge public sentiment.
And yet, social media activity and polling continues to be used as a proxy for what “real people” are thinking. Tempted by the ease and seemingly broad access, it’s now common for print and television journalists and commentators to quote from Twitter and Facebook rather than going out and getting quotes that come from actual people’s mouths. Seen as efficient and data driven, looking at what’s trending on social media or conducting online surveys is largely how listening is done in the 21st century by the press, politicians, lobbyists, activists, and business interests.
But it’s questionable that social media activity reflects society at large. Repeated investigations have shown that fake or bot accounts are responsible for much of the content. It’s estimated that 15 to 60 percent of social media accounts do not belong to real people. One study showed 20 percent of tweets related to the 2016 US election came from bots. Audits of the Twitter accounts of music celebrities, including Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, and Katy Perry found that the majority of their tens of millions of followers were bots.
Perhaps even more pervasive are lurkers on social media. These are individuals who set up accounts to see what other people are posting but who rarely, if ever, post anything themselves. The 1 percent rule, or 90-9-1 rule, of internet culture holds that 90 percent of users of a given online platform (social media, blogs, wikis, news sites, etc.) just observe and do not participate, 9 percent comment or contribute sparingly, and a scant 1 percent create most of the content. While the number of users contributing may vary somewhat by platform, or perhaps when something in the news particularly stirs passions, the truth remains that the silent are the vast majority.
Moreover, the most active users of social media and commenters on websites tend to be a very particular—and not representative—personality type who a) believe the world is entitled to their opinion and b) have time to routinely express it. Of course, what generates the most interest and attention online is outrage, snark, and hyperbole. Posts that are neutral, earnest, or measured don’t tend to go viral or get quoted in the media. This distorts dialogue and changes the tenor of conversations, casting doubt on how accurately the sentiments expressed track what people would say in the presence of a live, attentive listener.
To research this You’re Not Listening, I interviewed people of all ages, races, and social strata, experts and non-experts, about listening. Among the questions I asked was: “Who listens to you?” Almost without exception, what followed was a pause. Hesitation. The lucky ones could come up with one or two people, usually a spouse or maybe a parent, best friend, or sibling. But many said, if they were honest, they didn’t feel like they had anyone who truly listened to them, even those who were married or claimed a vast network of friends and colleagues. Others said they talked to therapists, life coaches, hairdressers, and even astrologers—that is, they paid to be listened to. A few said they went to their pastor or rabbi, but only in a crisis.
It was extraordinary how many people told me they considered it burdensome to ask family or friends to listen to them—not just about their problems but about anything more meaningful than the usual social niceties or jokey banter. An energies trader in Dallas told me it was “rude” not to keep the conversation light; otherwise, you were demanding too much from the listener. A surgeon in Chicago said, “The more you’re a role model, the more you lead, the less permission you have to unload or talk about your concerns.”The ability to listen carefully, like the ability to read carefully, degrades if you don’t do it often enough.
When asked if they, themselves, were good listeners, many people I interviewed freely admitted that they were not. The executive director of a performing arts organization in Los Angeles told me, “If I really listened to the people in my life, I’d have to face the fact that I detest most of them.” And she was, by far, not the only person who felt that way. Others said they were too busy to listen or just couldn’t be bothered. Text or email was more efficient, they said, because they could pay only as much attention as they felt the message deserved, and they could ignore the message or delete the message if it was uninteresting or awkward. Face-to-face conversations were too fraught. Someone might tell them more than they wanted to know, or they might not know how to respond. Digital communication was more controllable.
So begets the familiar scene of 21st-century life—at cafés, restaurants, coffeehouses, and family dinner tables, rather than talking to one another, people look at their phones. Or if they are talking to one another, the phone is on the table as if a part of the place setting, taken up at intervals as casually as a knife or fork, implicitly signaling that the present company is not sufficiently engaging. As a consequence, people can feel achingly lonely, without quite knowing why.
And then there were the people who told me that they were good listeners, though their claims were often undercut by the fact that they were talking to me on their mobile phones while driving. “I’m a better listener than most people,” said a trial lawyer in Houston returning my call in his car during rush hour traffic. “Wait, hold on a second, I have another call.” Also unconvincing were the people who said that they were good listeners and then immediately pivoted to a wholly unrelated topic, in the vein of The New Yorker cartoon where a guy holding a glass of wine at a cocktail party says, “Behold, as I guide our conversation to my narrow area of expertise.” Other self-described good listeners repeated what I had just said as if it were an original thought.
Again, this is not to say that poor listeners are necessarily bad or boorish people. When they finish your sentences for you, they truly believe that they are being helpful. They may interrupt because they thought of something that you would really want to know or they thought of a joke that was too funny to wait. They are the ones who honestly think that letting you have your say is politely waiting for your lips to stop moving so they can talk. Maybe they nod very quickly to move you along, sneak glances at their watches or phones, lightly tap the table, or look over your shoulder to see if there is someone else they could be talking to. In a culture infused with existential angst and aggressive personal marketing, to be silent is to fall behind. To listen is to miss an opportunity to advance your brand and make your mark.
But think of what would have happened had I been preoccupied with my own agenda when interviewing Oliver Sacks. It was a short column, and all I needed were a few circumscribed answers from him. I didn’t need to listen to him wax poetic about the climate of the mind or describe the challenge of living without a sense of direction. I could have interrupted and made him cut to the chase. Or, wanting to express myself and make an impression, I could have leapt in to share things about my life and experiences. But then I would have disrupted the natural flow of the conversation, halted the unfolding intimacy, and lost much of the joy of the interaction. I would not, to this day, carry his wisdom with me.
None of us are good listeners all the time. It’s human nature to get distracted by what’s going on in your own head. Listening takes effort. Like reading, you might choose to go over some things carefully while skimming others, depending on the situation. But the ability to listen carefully, like the ability to read carefully, degrades if you don’t do it often enough. If you start listening to everyone as you would scan headlines on a celebrity gossip website, you won’t discover the poetry and wisdom that is within people. And you withhold the gift that the people who love you, or could love you, most desire.
From You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy. Copyright © 2020 by the author and reprinted by permission of Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC.