The death of listening

Editor of the Reformer:

It's as if a serial killer is at work: first cursive writing, then grammar (u no who u r), now listening. All dead or dying. I'm sure there are great advantages to the technology that allows instant communication via texting, twitter and the myriad of tools that seem to have been born in the last day or two. My concern is that we have gone so far in the direction of tech interaction that we are forgetting how to talk to each other. Most importantly, we are losing the ability to listen. When I use the word listen, I mean the kind of attending to another that enables a human being to hear, see, feel, experience what the other is saying. To do so requires complete attention to that person for something longer than a nanosecond.

When I was a wet-behind-the-ears second year medical student, Dr. Beebe, an ancient family doc who still made house calls taught us physical diagnosis — the art of making a diagnosis based on taking a history and doing a physical exam. He told us that if we learned to listen to our patients, they would always tell us what was wrong with them. He meant listening with our ears and eyes, nose, hands, minds, and energy field. From him I learned to listen with my whole body. It is a way of connecting with another human being that allows a magical understanding of who they are and what they are trying — in our inadequate human way — to share with you; to find the meaning beyond their words.


Research shows that the nearly infinitely complex qualities of a human voice can convey an extraordinary amount of information. Pitch and tone, inflection, accent, intensity, timing all create a deeply nuanced picture of the speaker, their mood, their intention, affect, character traits, status, whether they are male or female, and many more attributes that are lacking in written forms of communication. E-mail and texting are devoid of human qualities essential to understanding what is meant by words. This explains the ambiguity of many text messages and the frequency of misinterpretations of meaning. Using an emoji as a substitute for a human emotion in an attempt to convey mood is akin to using a child's drawing of the Grand Canyon as a substitute for standing on the North Rim and seeing the vast expanse of the miraculous landscape in person.

Phone conversation is an only slightly less deficient method of human interaction. Body language, an essential part of conversing, is missing ever since smoke signals, Marconi, and Bell began the slow demise of true listening.

As I talk with people lately, they all seem to have a smartphone as an extra appendage and are constantly aware of its activity. They read, text and read some more as they are "listening" to me or whoever they are with. In this distracted form of listening, they miss the opportunity to assess genuineness, irony, sarcasm, trustworthiness, and so much more in their face-to-face conversations. It is not possible to really listen to someone unless your attention is completely focused on them. Yet this is so rare in this era of instant communication, that I fear listening is already dead. The funeral will be a silent one. I'm guessing no one will attend.

Judith Petry, Westminster, Feb. 15