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While It Is Evident That People Are Talking, Where Is The Evidence That People Are Really Listening?

Just the other day I had the pleasure of having lunch with a member of the 2006-07 & 2007-08 SUNY Plattsburgh NAACP Championship Women’s Hockey Team. In chit chatting about their two championship runs I asked her if she had ever been in a "shootout." She told me she had. When I asked her what was the score she said 1-0. My rendition of a “shootout” had a score that sounded like “10-9” which is quite a score for a hockey game. If we hadn’t taken the conversation a bit further, our thoughts and definitions of “shootout” would have been worlds apart. She informed me it is an actual hockey term. I was engaging it along the lines of the way it is used in football or basketball as an extension of the western term “shoot out” where in the midst of a fracas gunslingers were busting caps on anyone that moved. In these two sports it is where the offenses basically overwhelm the defenses and the score is ultimately extremely high.

As a philosophy and cultural studies graduate student working on an inter-field doctorate in southern California I once wrote a paper on the incommensurability of language. The essence of the paper was how easy it is for any of us to have a conversation with someone and believe that we actually understood one another, only to discover at a later date that we were really not communicating at the level we thought. Has that ever happened to you? If so, and you vividly remember that feeling, then consider this point: what about all the times that you have not communicated adequately with someone and you didn’t discover it. It is conceivable that many of us are walking around thinking we have some type of agreement with others and they really didn’t understand the true essence of what we were trying to convey.

Just this morning I witnessed Matt Laurer and Anne Coulter in a verbal dance around the cancellation of her guest spot on the Today Show the previous day. It was quite intriguing witnessing Matt attempting to inform her how it happened that she was preempted for Tony Blair and more so witnessing her making her points about the other people that were on the Today Show who were not preempted. They both had an agenda that they wanted to cover and therefore couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Then again, over dinner one night recently I was with a close confidant who knows the terrain of the North Country more than adequately. In a conversation about conversations relative to an upcoming event I was reminded that people see and here what they are predisposed to want to see and hear. For example, I was informed that people who don’t know me may see me as a one dimensional person who immediately admonishes people for their insensitivity or lack of consideration of others. If I am not doing that, then I am probably prejudging people. It appears that people may think I don’t have the ability to escape my profession as educator and consultant and that my analytical fire is always burning. So, in my case, I'm not necessarily heard because people already know what I will say. I'm curious, did you already know I was going to say what I have written above?

This disconnect in dialoguing also occurred in the recently released film “Doubt” starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. A fascinating film in so many ways (especially if you were educated in a Catholic school environment) the film actually presents another dimension/study of competing agendas. If the two characters portrayed by Streep and Hoffman had really conversed early on in the film it is conceivable they may not have ended up on such polar opposite sides of the issue at hand.

Have we become a society so fixated, so self-centered on our own reality that we can’t process others' realities in an open-minded way? What are some other examples of this phenomenon (in film, or real life)? What are your suggestions to solve this or should we just resign ourselves to the fact that this is how it is, and will continue to be?


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This happens to me often, I’m sure. When I have conversations with people who show no sign of comprehension (a head nod, eyes wide with epiphany, a smile) I ask if I’m making sense. If not, I try to explain myself in a way where I may be better understood. Still, what I want the other person to understand may not be what they choose to pick up on, or can relate to.

It’s funny when someone will finish your sentence though. That’s almost proof that they’re in your head and riding the same wave as you. Or how about when you say the same thing at the same time? Just a bit of reassurance to remind us that we can all be connected.

Going back to misunderstandings though, I have a bit of a problem with silence. When someone around me, close to me, is going through a rough time, I feel as though I need to say something to ease their pain. However, I always seem to say something insensitive in an attempt to lighten the moment. It’s almost selfish on my part, being that I would rather force my loved one to retreat from the moment than help guide them through it. I will have to go back and examine my past to see if this is how my pain was handled.

My intent in the above scenario is to place my beloved’s thoughts on something other than their pain, but my communication is undercut by his/her perception that I am being insensitive. If left without discussion, a moment like this can lead to worse communication between us. I think confidence in communication has a lot to do with communication in itself. If two people feel as though they CAN communicate, they will, and on a greater level. The more you do anything the better you are at it.

I have heard that communication is key, and by using it you can unlock doors everywhere in life. I hate not being able to get in somewhere.


I don't think it's fair to classify you as one dimensional...

HOWEVER...there is one glaring error in your first paragraph that might just give your critics some fodder to fire at you!

See it? (It made me laugh actually). Anyone?

*** Whaler, I haven't a clue as to what you are implying. Please enlighten me and everyone else as to my snafu so that we can all laugh (and perhaps me cry alone). *** -- J.W.

I have recently returned from the U.S. after a semester abroad in Costa Rica. When I arrived in Costa Rica, my communication level in Spanish was not very high. I lived with a local family and also with a roommate, Tony, from Minnesota. My roommate's ability to speak Spanish was at a lower level then mine, but not much. However after about a week in Costa Rica, my roommate and I were discussing the rules of the house, which our Tica Mom had discussed with us separately. During our discussion, Tony and I realized that we had interpreted almost every rule exactly opposite. For example, he thought we were allowed to have girls over during the night, where I felt she had forbidden it.

I think it is interesting to take this question to a different place, because English is our language in the U.S. and yet we still have trouble properly understanding the meaning and significance behind one's words. But when you are in a different country with a different language, not only do you have to translate words but you also have to try and understand them in a grammatical context, then understand them in a cultural context, and then understand them on a personal level.

My experience in Costa Rica was enjoyable because communicating with others was difficult; I had to think in a great deal about understanding ones sentence and understanding what someone was trying to say. I feel I had a strong relationship with many Costa Ricans because they knew I was putting in the effort to understand the meaning behind their words; by asking them grammatical questions or comparing what they just said to how we might say it in English. Communication was a mental struggle that took extra time and energy, but it showed an effort and most of the time had a positive result.

I think that if we put the same effort into communicating with people of the same language and country of origin that is needed to communicate with people of a different language or of a different origin, then we might be able to better understand the true significance of the words of others, and we will not just interpret the words of others as the answer we are looking for or we want to hear. Then we will not be put into situations like Tony's, where he almost smoked pot in the living room of our house. far as I know, the NAACP doesn't govern collegiate athletic competition...

I'm pretty sure that's the NCAA! :)

Granted it was a slip of the tongue (or fingers)...but is it an example of being one minded about a specific topic? That's just a rhetorical question for you to chew on...not one I'm really sending your way.

I just saw the faux pas as an opportunity for some good-natured ribbing. ;)

I hope to be able to respond to the "guts" of your post soon.

*** Whaler, you got me on that one. I could attempt to spin it at the point of the impact tje NAACP has had on the NCAA, but frankly I have never researched that impact and could be hype-extending my arm attempting to reach that far. Said differently, perhaps I was too fixated on another acronym I used in my response, "snafu." If you didn't know, check that one out.

Seriously though, thanks! It is funny/ironic how the mind works. *** -- J.W.

Many people in the North Country do not care for you and what you represent. So no matter what you say they won't necessarily be listening. Some wonder are you truly passionate about Social Justice or have you jumped on this band wagon because it is self serving? Do you walk like you talk? In some cases, I know you don't!

When people have issues with the person that is speaking, they will find flaws in much of what you have to say or when a person has a predisposition, they will justify the hell out of anything -- just the same way that you do!

*** Kim W, since I don't know you, but you profess to know me, it would seem to me that you may be one of the people that has a predisposition about me, or people like me, especially since you profess to speak for many people in the North Country. The notion of many is always intriguing. Many people didn't like Obama either, but he none the less won by a landslide.

My authenticity about social justice is clear to those who really know me. Others are outside my reality and the best they can do from that position is speculate. It would be virtually impossible for you to know whether I walk the walk if you only see me from a distance. But hey, that is your opinion and I imagine you believe, and others who know you, that it is worth something. The same would hold true of my take on my opinion and the people who value it. In some odd way, that is what makes the world go round.

Have a great day and give my regards to the "many" in the North Country who do not care for me and what I represent. I am still working for them and you, whether your predisposition allows you to realize it or not. *** -- J.W.


I think this discussion ties in quite nicely with the previous post on Truth. Was that part of your grand plan?

Listening...really listening...implies that particular words are important. It also implies that each of us are carefully choosing our words when we speak. It's difficult to say that people aren't listening to each other, or worse yet, don't have the ability to hear each other, when so many of our daily interactions are superficial. If individuals don't take care in the words they choose to use, they will be ineffective in communicating their thoughts to others.

Part of the problem with language and thought/philosophy/communicating ideas, is that there is a disconnect between words as indivdual things, and how those words are used in an everyday way. This is where I credit you for moving the conversation from Truth to understanding (listening). Truth, for philosophers is a thing. It's a thing in much the same way as a chair or my car. It's a be technical. But we don't use the word truth in that manner in everday life. We hear things like, "you better tell me the truth", or "truth be told", or "to be completely truthful".

In a sense it's But it's also perspective. Each of us are coming at a discussion with a notion of what we think the subject matter is. We combine our experience...our education...our vocabulary. Our understanding can only come from these things. Language, therefore, (and understanding for that matter) is limited to the common ground we have between us.

I can see why you were interested in language as a student. The problems that arise in philosophy as a result of the limitations of language are very similar to the problems that arise in understanding those different from you. Just as two/three/four people have difficulty agreeing on what truth is, based on the words they use...people have the same difficulty understanding other people based on the lives they've lived.

After I graduated high school I spent some time in Australia - nearly a year in fact - as a foreign exchange student. Australians' first language is English, but, an American could be forgiven for not knowing what in the world two Aussies were talking about. It's not the accent - it's the slang. The Aussies are famous for one of the most extensive slang "dictionaries" in the world. Two funny items...

Item 1: One of my new schoolmates asked me if I followed American Football. I said "yes, of course." He asked me which team I liked and I said "I root for the New York Giants." Well, in Australia, the word "root" is used as slang like we use the word "screw" - as in, to have sex. So, what I said was I "have sex" for the NY Giants. In perfect Ausie style, my friend asked "the whole team?"

Item 2: My first night "in country" my host mother made a great meal - and being hungry after a very long trip, I happily ate it all and asked for seconds (which, by the way, is bad manners there - you're supposed to wait until you're offered a second helping). After gulping down my second helping, I leaned back and delcared - "oh wow, that was so good I'm stuffed!" Well - "stuffed" can be slang for "pregnant" there. My host father didn't miss a beat - "and just how did THAT happen?" he asked with a straight face as everyone else at the table laughed histerically.

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