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Posts Tagged ‘listening’

Every breath you take and every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take, I’ll be watching you

The Police: Every breath you take

Yesterday, I was driving to visit an acquaintance, and my daughter was sitting in her car seat in the back. We normally take public transit if it’s just the two of us, so she doesn’t have a lot of experience of being alone in the back seat. This time, however, circumstances favored us taking my mom’s car.

Normally, she really likes it in the car. It hums, the scenery changes, and most of the time there’s someone next to her, keeping her company. This time, though, she was alone in the back, and I don’t know if it was that or some other reason, but she was really unhappy and voiced it very loudly. Since I’m pretty averse to letting my child cry for lengthy periods of time, I pulled over and went to the back seat, tried to calm her down and gave her the pacifier. She settled down for a moment, and just as I was starting the car again, she began to whimper. I started singing a simple lullaby that we’ve been singing to her since she was a few weeks old, and that seemed to calm her down. I ended up singing the song over and over until we arrived at our destination.

Apparently the sound of my voice and the familiar song were strong enough messages to convince her that she was not alone and that I was close by, even when she couldn’t see me. As far as I understand, developmentally she is yet to realize that things exist even when you can’t see them.

“I’ll be right there!”

I’ve been thinking a lot about presence ever since I read an article on a study concerning babies’ stress when they are ignored. The babies in the study were six months old, and in the study, their mothers played with them normally, but “froze” for two minutes at a time every now and then, staying in the baby’s sightline but ignoring the baby and staring at the wall. The babies showed elevated stress hormone levels on the following day, when they were brought back to the research facility, even though there was no ignoring on the second day.

I found out about the study on an online message board, and there was (unsurprisingly) some discussion as to what the practical applications of this study are. Some people thought it more or less chains mothers and infants together and lays a guilt trip on anyone who dares to go to the bathroom with the door closed if their child is left alone for that time. Others saw it as a defense against “just let the baby cry it out, it’ll be all right” type of advice.

Personally, I do think that babies need their mothers close by. If a child voices a distress and it systematically gets no response, it will eventually stop voicing its distress because it’s just no use – no-one will answer anyway. However, a response may well be something along the lines of my car-ride lullaby. If my baby hears my voice, it knows I’m not far away. I haven’t disappeared from the world, even if I am currently invisible.

Furthermore, she knows she is not invisible – I can hear her, I can vocally respond to her cries, I can take eye contact when I get closer and I can pick her up when I see she’s in distress. My presence and interaction with her convince her that she exists.

The online presence

In many ways, the online world reflects this “someone please tell me I’m not invisible!” line of thinking. Establishing a presence online – whether in Facebook, on message boards, in the blogosphere, on Twitter – really requires time, effort and reciprocity. There are a few online contexts where I’ve managed to create a presence, and others where I’m really only a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it face in the crowd.

Creating that presence takes time. Reading (because most of the presence is in text form) what others have contributed, finding interesting tidbits to share, regularly coming back to see what others have added since your last visit. It takes effort. Figuring out your opinions (on more serious matters), grafting your message so it’s easy to read, wording your jokes, timing your responses so you stay on the pulse and don’t comment on ancient topics.

And it takes reciprocity. Commenting on what others have already said, taking it a bit further, reading the responses you get and possibly repeating the whole cycle again. It’s the online equivalent of the eye contact: “Yes, I can see you, there you are, you exist in this world.”

Degrees of presence

For our daughter, I’m probably the number one presence in her life. The head honcho, the one who hardly ever leaves her side. My husband is a close second. After that, there are the grandparents, the godparents, our friends, and so forth in descending order.

It’s interesting to see how the degrees of presence show in her behavior towards us. Since I’m nearly always there, my presence borders on boring. It’s safe, but it’s also something she doesn’t make a big deal about. The few exceptions are the times when she wakes up from her nap, and sees me coming in the room if I was somewhere else. The smile on her face says “Awesome, you were gone and now you’re here!” My husband, on the other hand, seems to get all the giggles. πŸ™‚ He is a safe presence, but not quite as predictable as I.

Then there are the interesting visitors, the ones who ring some kind of a bell but aren’t daily contacts, people like my mom and some of her godparents. There has to be a grace period of her reacquainting herself to these visitors from the safety of my or my husband’s lap, before she is secure enough to cuddle with them.

Online, the degrees or presence became evident on another message board, when there were several cases of sad news in a short while. Since the people in question were “big names”, it seemed that everyone knew what was going on in a heartbeat. Similarly, “big names” leaving or taking a break would be a huge deal in an online community – just because so many people are so used to their presence. It’s safe. You can count on their “it’s okay, honey, I’ll be right there”.

When a small-time presence disappears for any length of time, you hardly notice – until they return, or until someone points out they are gone. I’m fairly confident there were less than a handful of people who wondered why I’d been a lazy blogger, and most of those people were real-world friends. πŸ™‚

A shift of sorts

Since creating an online presence (and a real-life presence, too) takes time and effort, you can realistically have a limited number of really influential presences in different social communities. At the moment, my most influential presence is in the context of my family, but there are other, smaller ones in the background.

I’ve noticed I need the feeling of being a strong presence in social communities. Possibly for the “someone sees me, therefore I must exist” reason. This is probably why I’ve originally liked being a group leader or a teacher – there are more pairs of eyes to strengthen my existence. πŸ™‚ Being a quiet onlooker in the sidelines has not been a suit that fits.

Until now.

I don’t know if it’s the arrival of the baby or something else, but there has been a change in my relationship towards social situations, whether live or online ones. Before, I’ve felt like I need to open my mouth, to contribute, to be a presence in order to “buy” my foothold in the community. Contributing has been the currency of being seen.

Now, I feel like contributing has become the primary force. I want to contribute when someone needs help, thoughts, entertainment or ideas. Or when I have an idea that needs voicing. If someone sees it and benefits from it, wonderful. If they comment, even better. But I don’t feel like my contribution was a failure if it’s met with silence.

Furthermore, I enjoy just observing a situation without feeling the need to contribute. If something comes up, I’ll express it, but I don’t feel like I’ll be thrown out of the room (or off the Internets) simply because I just observe. I love going to a moms-and-babies meetup, sitting at the table, drinking a cup of coffee and just listening. And my worth as an online community member is not determined by my post count. πŸ™‚

As is appropriate, the writing of this blog post was interrupted a few times by the cooing of a napping baby who needed my presence. πŸ™‚

Thank you so much for popping by again! If any thoughts came up (and you feel the need to contribute πŸ˜‰ ), feel free to share in the comments! If not, it’s okay to just sip coffee and observe, and possibly catch your own insightings!

Love,

Sari

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These are days when no one should rely unduly on his competence. Strength lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed.
Walter Benjamin

Thanks to a brilliant blog post by Sonia Simone, I’ve been inspired to expand my journaling habit from just writing a diary every evening.

For the past few days, I’ve taken a few moments after my usual Shiva Nata-yoga-meditation practice (referring to it as “practice” rather than “kind of a thingy” makes me feel incredibly cool and aware πŸ˜›) to journal about anything and everything that comes to mind.

I’ll take a sheet of paper, fold it in half so the page size doesn’t scare me out, and start writing. Writing without stopping, without planning, without blocking myselfΒ  in any way, until I hit the bottom of the final page. Then I take the paper and rip and cut it into little shreds without reading it.

The first time I did it, I noticed some interesting parallels with theatrical improvisation. I wanted to call them suprising parallels, but when you think about it, it’s not really surprising as it is blatantly obvious that the two processes should share features.

After all, in both journaling and impro you’re dealing with the first thought that your subconscious mind throws at you. No wonder there’s similarity. They’re also different in some fundamental ways, though.

Gutter minds

For most people, the thought of impro is scary. Especially the first times you’re doing something that taps into your subconscious and drags it out, you might feel surprised or downright disgusted of what comes up.

To be able to function in the everyday world, we’ve gotten pretty good at blocking a lot of taboo topics from our conversation or even our conscious thinking. Everyone has their own set of taboos that just aren’t talked about – death, money, sex, hatred, failure, greed, you name it.

Since those things are a part of the human existence, though, they lurk somewhere in the background all the time. Impro and journaling share the feature of posing a challenge to the conscious mind, mostly with the need for rapid production, so that the unconscious can get a word in here and there.

The two major processes that people use to control their subconscious in impro contexts are blocking and planning. I noticed I did both during my first shot at journaling.

Planning keeps your higher consciousness in control, so you can monitor whether the stuff that comes out is appropriate. As I was looking for a paper and a pen, I kept crafting the first few sentences in my mind. I felt the need to introduce the context – “here I am, journaling for the first time.”

As I started writing, though, the planning idea stepped aside. It did come up once or twice, when I got wonderful ideas mid-sentence and decided I’d write about that next.

When I’d finished the sentence, though, I’d have a lot of other ideas on my mind as well, and I chose to go with whatever was topmost in my mind at that moment. This is a skill impro had definitely reinforced in me.

The more interesting phenomenon was the blocking one, though. Blocking basically means either trumping your fellow improviser’s ideas (“Here you go, sir, the magic sword.” “What? Where’s the sword? Your hands are empty!”) or discarding your own ideas before you say them out loud.

Another form of control right there – trying guide the impro in a specific direction and blocking all other options.

While writing, I noticed I started to write “it’s awful that”, noticed I’m being very negative, and changed it into “it’s awfully difficult to”. I did make a note about that, too. About being judgmental of what I write before I write it even though no-one will ever see it, not even me. Major blocks.

Meta-ing

The benefit of journaling in these cases is that you’re not trying to maintain a fictional world, and you’re only communicating with yourself. This means you can make an actual written note of the phenomenon as soon as you notice it.

In impro, you’d have to wait until the scene is over and you’re offstage to reflect on your experiences, either alone or with a fellow improviser. Try doing that onstage and you lose focus. πŸ™‚

I remember having one or two “I know I should be able to, there I go with the should again, I know I want to” -explications in my journaling.

This, to me, was probably the most fascinating part of the entire process.

Not only do I find out stuff from my subconscious mind, I can observe the processes and patterns I have about relating to that stuff and becoming aware of those as well.

It’s like having a multi-level reflection awareness going on, since the writing process makes you notice the shoulds and the awfuls and the complaints and the oh shucks I shouldn’t complains. In a way, it lets you listen to your own internal stuff and keeps you busy so you don’t need to focus on not thinking so much.

I really hope to establish this as a daily habit as well – not least because it’s a wonderful way to spot connections between things. Which is incidentally what insightings are all about. A brilliant way to insight, if you will.

Thanks for stopping by, and until we meet again – keep catching your own insightings!

Love,

Sari

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Remember that children, marriages, and flower gardens reflect the kind of care they get.
H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

Ever since the past fall, I’ve been paying attention to my inner dialogue. First of all, it’s bilingual – Finnish and English both feature in a happy chaos. Second, I recognize different personas speaking. Not in a multiple personality disorder kind of way, mind you.

It’s just that some sentences are clearly spoken by my mother, or sister, or childhood friend – in other words, I’ve heard them so many times in the exact same way that I’ve internalized them as parts of my own inner radio station.

The funny thing is, ever since I’ve started to listen to my own inner dialogue, there is one sentence that keeps coming up time and time again, almost every day. “You’re stupid.” In English. If it comes up in Finnish, it’s more elaborate and grown-up sounding, but in English it’s that simple. “You’re stupid.”

Now, I know for a fact that I’m not really intellectually stupid. Most of the times I hear that phrase I know I’m not doing anything intellectually stupid, either. In other words, it can’t be a real protective mechanism, it must be something else.

The tone I hear it in is very accusing and defensive at the same time, much like a small child who isn’t getting what s/he wants from Mom. Visualise an eight-year old pouting and saying that to Mom over her shoulder. “You’re stupid.” That’s it.

I’m guessing this has a lot to do with both negative core beliefs and getting to know my inner child, both of which I’ve been working on during the past few weeks. Among other things, I’m really fascinated with the situations my inner brat decides to blurt out the insult.

Like, just a moment ago. I glance at the tab featuring my blog on my Firefox, and the thought crosses my mind: “I wonder if anyone’s visited or commented?” “You’re stupid.” As in, why would anyone do that?

Or I’m contemplating whether to Twitter about my latest blog post. “You’re stupid.” Why would you bother people with things they don’t want to know?

Or I’m wondering whether I should send a sort-of-friend a funny video on Facebook. “You’re stupid.” Why would s/he care about your stupid videos?

Or I’m considering commenting on someone’s wonderful blog post and the only real contribution I have is along the lines of “nice post, glad to read it.” “You’re stupid.” Why clutter someone’s comments with pointless stuff like that?

The general tone seems to be that of “Mo-om, you’re embarrassing me in public! I can’t believe you’d do that!” Which is funny, since my inner child does not really seem all that much like a teenager in other respects. Well, I guess you have an array of inner brat ages for every occasion. πŸ™‚

The more I manage to see the voice as my inner brat whining for attention or throwing a temper tantrum, the easier it is for me to calm her down and notice what she’s got to say without getting offended or affected by the message itself. “Why do you say that, honey?”

And once the grumpiness and pouting cools down, I can really stop and listen to the ideas that bounce around in my head concerning the whole “You’re stupid” embarrassment temper tantrum. I can give myself the kind of unconditional attention that I otherwise would probably not give.

And it’s so much easier for me to not start beating myself up about having these hang-ups about so many things if I think of that part of me as a scared little girl acting out and just wanting a hug and some time together.

It’s also a lot easier to give myself genuine positive feedback about things I’ve been working on. All in all, it feels easier to be there for and take care of myself if I imagine I’m looking after my inner child.

Maybe, just maybe, I could be a safe trustworthy adult for myself. What a concept. Feels all warm and fuzzy, that.

Thanks for reading, and say hi to your inner brat, child or teenager from mine. (She’s getting all shy now that I mentioned she’s around…)

Until we meet again – keep catching your own insightings!

Love,

Sari

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What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.
T.S. Eliot

Familiar new beginnings

Every single New Year’s Eve I can remember, someone has cracked a joke about “see you next year” or “I swear I won’t do the dishes for the rest of the year!” or something clever like that. More often than not, that someone has been me. πŸ™‚

There is something very liberating about the thought of familiar endings and new beginnings. Familiar in the sense that you know there is nothing intrinsically different about the New Year that would force you out of your comfort zone.

There is, however, the same giddy feeling of transformation you get when standing at a railway station or an airport. The notion of literally being in the process* is appealing, either when going somewhere yourself or merely watching others.

*”Etymology: Middle English proces, from Anglo-French procΓ©s, from Latin processus, from procedere.” Merriam Webster Online

As my year of unfamiliar new beginnings drew to a close Wednesday night, I was contemplative more than anything. I was happy, of course, that a new year was about to begin, but somehow the giddiness was gone.

I guess my past year was so full of endings and beginnings, from the death of my sister to giving up two different long-term teaching gigs to taking up Shiva Nata to getting engaged and finishing my BA that, well, the end of a year just didn’t feel like a juicy new opportunity anymore.

As far as resolutions go, instead of planning a whole new me for 2009, I’ll try and get to know the person 2008 moulded me into. Should take a year or so. Between that and being open to the unforeseen possibilities the world has in store for me, I think I’m set.

Familiar vs. unfamiliar communication

By far the best part of my New Year’s Celebration was the chance to observe the dynamics between familiar and unfamiliar people. I especially loved the chance to watch nonverbal communication in interesting situations, although status transactions and communication strategies did intrigue me, too.

Background story: I attended a party hosted by a friend, and the guests included my friends, whose communication strategies I’m familiar with, as well as the hostess’s friends that I hadn’t met before.

Fascinating situation 1: watching, but not overhearing, two people have a conversation where one is visibly more eager than the other. Attack and defense, if you will. A step forwards by A, a step backwards by B. A touch on the arm by A, a crossing of arms by B. All during a seemingly friendly, smiling interaction.

The following act was, if possible, even more interesting. It included several people, both men and women, and the status competition was of World Series caliber.

Interestingly, some of the participants didn’t even seem to need to up the stakes, they did it without any self-consciousness or effort. Others, then, were visibly stressed by the fact that they were not the center of attention, and pulled out all the stops to regain their former glory.

There were also a situations where direct and indirect communication strategies intertwined, sometimes with a smooth transition, sometimes with a radical clash. This was especially the case later on during the night, when some participants had already inebriated the part of their brain that discerns between actual personal insults and friendly jabs. Pair that with the need to show compassion, and you’re set for a treat. Fortunately the situation calmed down before any real physical consequences.

So far, the greatest new skill I’ve gained from my drama teacher studies is the ability to watch people interact and be truly fascinated by them instead of getting annoyed or offended. This is something I’m really grateful for. The next step, then, is being able to explicate that experience into concrete elements that can be brought onstage or into language classes.

Thank you for stopping by and hanging out with me. As always, feel free to comment, and may the year 2009 turn out wonderful for catching your own insightings!

Love,

Sari

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subtext
noun
the implicit or metaphorical meaning (as of a literary text)
(Merriam-Webster Online)

Today’s insighting was inspired by a conversation I had with my dear fiancΓ© the other day. It was A Typical Conversation in Two Acts:

In Act I, we were talking past each other while seemingly communicating;

In Act II,Β  we started talking about what it was exactly that the other heard in the remarks we made in Act I.

That got me thinking about subtext, a literary or dramatic notion about the implied meaning behind what is said.

Subtext and drama text

The play on the page might have the following dialogue:

J: I love you.
M: What?
J: You heard me.
M: I sure did.

It’s up to the director of the play to figure out what happens during and between those lines. In other words, what is actually meant by the characters when they utter those lines.

If you wanted to make it a (cheesy) romantic comedy scene, you could go with the following subtexts:

J: I love you. (Please don’t reject me?)
M: What? (This is a dream come true!)
J: You heard me. (You are… happy?)
M: I sure did. (Come here and let me embrace you!)

If, on the other hand, you wanted to make it a tragic scene depicting the relationship between a mother and a child, you don’t have to change the lines, just the subtext:

J: I love you. (You owe me your life!)
M: What? (How can you guilt me like that?!)
J: You heard me. (I have the power in this situation.)
M: I sure did. (I am so disappointed.)

Add to this the layer of movement, gesture and facial expression, and you get two very different interpretations of the same script.

Of course, the actors know each others’ subtexts. In an ordinary conversation, though, we can’t always be sure of how our remarks are interpreted. Even more importantly, we can’t be sure if we’ve interpreted the other person correctly.

Subtext and everyday communication

For every single utterance, there are a multitude of interpretations depending on the context and the relationship of the interlocutors. The degree of appropriate directness between interlocutors, first of all, is determined by the formality of the situation and their distance in social hierarchy.

Then there are politeness and imposition issues – it’s all right to be direct when asking for the salt in the breakfast table, whereas it’s quite another matter to ask your boss for a raise or a week off work. This I hope to come back to later.

With indirectness, then, comes the problem of multiple interpretations. And this is where subtext marches onstage.

Case in point: The Typical Conversation (Act I)

This is how I interpreted the conversation

Me: I’m feeling crappy about that thing you did or didn’t do.
– – subtext: I’m feeling bad.

J: But blah blah blah, I did blah blah. (I’m rephrasing here)
– – subtext: You are not allowed to feel bad.
Me: The thing was, blah blah…
– – subtext: I am too allowed to be upset, you blockhead!
J: But couldn’t you have blah blah…
– – subtext: It’s your own fault you’re feeling upset, so there! Ha!

and so on.

This is how J told me he had interpreted the conversation

Me: I’m feeling crappy about that thing you did or didn’t do.
– – subtext: You ruined my day and are a lousy person

J: But blah blah blah, I did blah blah. (I’m rephrasing here)
– – subtext: You are attacking me and I don’t think I did anything wrong.
Me: The thing was, blah blah…
– – subtext: You lousy person, I’m determined to make you sorry!
J: But couldn’t you have blah blah…
– – subtext: You’re blaming me for your own mistakes, ma’am!

In other words, it was the classic I-need-to-be-heard, he-feels-the-need-to-defend pattern. Even though I really was trying to be constructive, instead of starting out with:

Me: You f**king d******, why do you always blah blah blah!!
– – subtext: I’m feeling bad.

What eventually defused the situation – and marked the transition between Acts I and II – was J’s comment:
J: I understand you’re upset
– – subtext: I understand you’re upset

After hearing that, I didn’t need to convince him that, indeed, I was feeling upset. From his point of view, I could stop attacking him and start thinking about whether or not I’d had something to do with the end result, too.

It’s all very classic communications stuff, but it was interesting to see just how deep these pre-programmed scripts of subtexts can run. And how long it took both of us to realise that it was not, in fact, about the initial issue anymore.

Talk about a duh moment. Wait – we weren’t, like, listening to each other? Whoah.

As for the topic of saying what you mean and meaning what you say… ahhh. A large part of the pragmatical branch of linguistics is concerned with the mechanisms around that very phenomenon.

I promise to unleash my inner linguist and address those mechanisms as soon as I get some empirical material to illustrate my points. With the holidays coming up, I have no doubt my data will be plentiful.

Have a lovely weekend (or week, if you’re reading the archives), and keep catching your own insightings!

Love,

Sari

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It was impossible to get a conversation going; everybody was talking too much.
Yogi Berra

I really really appreciate stand up comedians. Well, good ones. The ones that get onstage and casually chitchat with the audience, tell hilarious stories and sometimes perform wonderful physical comedy. All with a very casual, seemingly spontaneous delivery.

The trick is precisely in that they’ve carefully written their material beforehand, and they usually have a standard joke or two (or probably more like fifty) for the moments they interview the audience. The best ones are so experienced they don’t necessarily even need to have a ready-written script for their show – they can just wing it from the bits and pieces they’ve been doing before.

Then again, there are people who go see a stand up show, or a few, and think they can start cracking wonderfully funny jokes in every conversation. Put a handful of these people in one room, and you’ve got the ingredients for a great conversation where no-one listens to anyone else.

The Delicate Balance

I admit to being one of these people sometimes. More often than not, though, the situation is very informal and I’m with people who I know and trust. Sometimes you’ll be joking around a very delicate issue that everyone’s aware of, and you feel a mutual sense of respect as no-one crosses the line. You know, that particular line right there.

This is the good kind of jokester conversation. People are listening to each other, both verbally and nonverbally. Eye contacts, responses and body language all resonate with the conversation, and if someone starts to steer the topic into an undesirable territory, the others find a way to get it back on track.

Then again, you might be joking about something that might not seem that delicate to you, and the conversation freezes after your comment. For everyone who’s ever watched The Fast Show, this is the classic “I’ll get me coat” moment. Even if the others pick up the conversation, you still feel the shift.

Something went wrong in the balance of the conversation. What was it?

Most of the “I’ll get me coat” situations I’ve created – and there have been plenty, I assure you – have been due to one of two things.

One, I was trying desperately to be funny.

Two, I was only listening and responding to the surface level of the previous comments instead of deep listening to what it was they were actually saying.

The Punchline Machine

Making people laugh is a thrill. Making people squirm in embarrassment – not so much. Still, for me the thrill is so much bigger than the awkwardness that I often take a risk of blurting out the funny remark that comes to mind.

I’m actually not sure if this is as common with girls and women as it is with boys and men. Girls stereotypically have a more listening, conversational social interactions, whereas boys tell stories and jokes.

That said, while I believe everyone has their own unique style of interaction, I get into the jokester mode much more easily when I’m in a mixed crowd of people as opposed to an all-female group.

The problem is, though, that when I’m really trying to be funny, I’m mediocre at best. This, again, parallels one of the ground rules of improvisational theater: don’t try to be funny. Instead, try to be as dull, bland and unusual as possible, and you’re immediately letting your own self shine through. Now that’s interesting.

When my focus in the conversation is to make people laugh as much as possible, I often get the embarrassing squirms and frequent topic changes. The reason is quite simple: I’m looking for the funny, and often the funny is the same thought that occurred to the others, too. In which case it didn’t need to be said out loud anyway.

When I’m focusing on what is said, I let my mind wander to unexpected associations and wild insightings. Blurting out one of those as it occurs to me might get a laugh. If it doesn’t, I’m not really that disappointed anyway, since that wasn’t my goal to start with.

And even if I don’t make the others laugh, someone else might get inspired by my remark and crack the joke of the century. It’s like assisting in a soccer goal. Or I’m guessing it is – I don’t play or watch soccer. πŸ™‚

Surface Listening vs. Deep Listening

More often than not people do listen to both the surface level and the deep level of what is said. That’s what makes it possible to notice someone use a wrong preposition while you’re empathising with them on their lousy day. What makes the difference is your response.

Here, I’ll talk about surface listening when I mean responding to the surface level of what is said. Similarly, I’ll use the term deep listening when talking about responding to the deeper, meaning or implication level of what is said. More elegant that way, don’t you think?

Often conversations shift between surface level and deep level. More often than not, deep listening is not inappropriate even if surface listening dominates the conversation.

However, what I’ve found is that once a conversation shifts to a deeper listening level, it’s worthwhile to think twice about responding on the surface level, even if you come up with something hilarious.

One of the most common situations where I’ve noticed this dynamic is in our student organisation meetings. They are quite casual, and the conversation is frequently interrupted by a brainstorm of puns and jokes. (Leave it to the linguists to pun every single ambiguity to within an inch of its life.)

However, when we’re really having a real conversation, or when the chair is presenting a task to be done, a surface level joke does not really get a good response. On the contrary, people often get irritated and impatient because of the interruption.

Or take a conversation in a party. If the conversation shifts so that we’re using the language to do something rather than as a toy, surface level responses often create irritation. It’s as if the person cracking the joke doesn’t get it or respect the topic when, in fact, they’ve just failed to sense the shift in conversational dynamics.

Go Deep and Be Boring

Based on these ground mistakes, here is the rule of thumb I’m trying to learn to live by in this respect:

When in doubt, listen deep and avoid making funny.

Once you get clued into the situation and the group dynamics, it becomes easier to sense the shifts and break this rule. However, by always making sure you listen and respond on the deep level too, you avoid insulting or irritating people whose backgrounds you don’t know.

Once or twice I’ve been in a situation where a friend has cracked a joke about a topic that was quite acute to me, and then later apologised as they “didn’t remember and didn’t mean to hurt me”. Had it been a complete stranger who didn’t know the story – and whom I didn’t know and trust to not be a moron – my night might have been ruined.

Also, aiming at not being funny does two things. One, it frees you from frantically scanning the surface level for a peg to hook your joke on and makes it easier to really listen. Two, it lets your mind wander and come up with real, new and unusual ideas without any obligation to say them out loud.

My jokester side is begging for me to insert a funny joke right here. After all, I already have your attention. πŸ™‚ I’ll refrain from making my own funny, and give you the second runner up in the 1995 Style Invitational contest in Washington Post:

I felt a nameless dread. Well, there probably is a long German name for it, like Geschpooklichkeit or something, but I don’t speak German. Anyway, it’s a dread that nobody knows the name for, like those little square plastic gizmos that close your bread bags. I don’t know the name for those either. (Jack Bross, Chevy Chase)

This one grew long. Whoops. Hope you enjoyed it, and as always, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

So until we meet again – keep catching your insightings!

Love,

Sari

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