It strikes me more and more how society is becoming increasingly self-preoccupied. There have been countless articles written about this, so I won’t launch another tome on the subject. But I’ve begun to experiment a bit in conversation (if you can call it that these days) with colleagues, acquaintances and even strangers. I’ve reflected on it, and come to the conclusion that I ask questions of others—how was your day, how was your summer vacation, where are you from, do you like it here, what was this or that like, what are your interests, what books do you like—out of genuine interest and curiosity, not merely politeness, but that the interest is seldom reciprocal. This is not true of my conversations with good friends and family, so I know that it should not irritate me as much as it does. But it does irritate me, because it is symptomatic of much of what is wrong with our society. Showing interest in others' lives and in what others have to say is not nosy or intrusive; in fact it’s quite the opposite, it’s a kind and civilized gesture that makes people feel included. Asking others how they are or about their lives is a friendly gesture, and I am appreciative of that gesture when people ask me how I am or how my summer was, and really listen to my response. What I have experienced, just in the space of the few weeks I have been back at work, is the following:
- The ignorers--those colleagues who never or barely (grudgingly) acknowledge their co-workers in the hallway—no smile, no greeting, complete disinterest. But if you stop them and ask how they are, they will hold an extensive speech on how things are going with them. This makes me wonder if academia is a uniquely self-preoccupied profession. Well, I guess I know the answer—it is.
- The interrupters--people who ask you how you are or how your summer was, only to give you exactly thirty seconds to reply before they launch into their own stories about their own lives. Or the ones who interrupt nearly every sentence you utter with some comment that diverts the conversation back to them. I would find it amusing if I didn’t find it so irritating. They’re like children clamoring for attention from their parents. Me, me, me…….
- The self-promoters—those who use any and all conversational attempts as an excuse to tell you how wonderful and great they are. Similar to the interrupters except that you rarely even get the chance to say a word. It’s as though they’re on promotional tours to tell you about a new book, and of course that ‘book’ is their life. My world and welcome to it……
- The besserwissers--people who don’t really listen to what you are telling them, and who are just waiting for an opening to jump in and insert their own comments about your situation. They’re champing at the bit. These are the aggressive people who always know better than you. In fact, they know it all, or they know best. Who can always tell you how you should have done something or how they did it and how you too can achieve or experience the same as they did, if only you do so-and-so.
The experience of actually being listened to, or of listening to others, is transforming. If you’ve ever wondered how to make someone’s day, try putting yourself aside and really listening to what another person has to say. Acknowledging others is important in conversation, and I don’t see much of this anymore. It can be as simple as a nod of the head, eye contact, or a smile from the person who asked you a question and is now listening to your answer.