Learning to Listen – Reflections on a World of Noise

Think: when was the last time you heard silence, the last time you gave way in an argument, the last time you just sat and stared like the old folks sit and stare on park benches? When was the last time you truly listened? Was it this morning, yesterday, last week, last year?

For so long I loved to command a conversation, win arguments, defeat what I thought was “ignorance”, change minds. If a debate had to go on for hours before the combatants called a cease-fire, then so be it. Still, of course, I love an impassioned exchange, but only now I understand the difference between a debate and a discussion, the difference between two monologues and one dialogue. That difference is the same difference between hearing and listening.

Communication: much more than conversation

Ours is a world overflowing with chatter and noise. On the television and the radio, on the street and in the workplace we swim through a sea of soundwaves, all communicating opinions, emotions, experiences, music, and commerce, much of it either superfluous or superficial. In carparks they play, inexplicably, Norah Jones; in pool changing rooms the radio revives Girls Just Wanna Have Fun; on buses they interrupt your book with the smooth sounds of Cyrus; and annually over Christmas they bring back Bing, no matter where you are on the planet. We live under this avalanche of artificial sound, there is no peace for the tranquil.

To see just how unnecessary words are, just take a look at the deaf. Often it is the eyes, eyebrows, lips, and the forty-three other facial muscles that tell us the same thing as, or better express, the spoken equivalent

Observe this noise and you will see how much we hear but how little we listen. This realisation came on slow in my case, beginning when I moved from my home country to Spain. Suddenly robbed of my language, and thus of all confidence and any charm, I had no choice but to listen. In my university classes – formally my preferred battleground for ideological duels – I sat silent for months, and in bars I fumbled my way through “conversation”, on one occasion literally stumbling into a group of the opposite sex, knocking over their mojitos and escaping the one-word exchange that was “¡desastre!”, with my tail between my legs. Yes, there is nothing quite like learning another language for a healthy hit to the ego.


The Church: one of the last refuges of silence in modern society

And show me, reader, one culture which is more vociferous than the Spanish culture. In Spain, not only do people talk a lot, but they talk loud, sometimes seemingly physically incapable of moderately volumed speech. In some cases they have developed it into an art form, mastering both banter and flattery, but the side-effect is a country with no quiet cafes, with few peaceful public spaces.

There are both pleasant and unpleasant aspects of a culture of chit-chat, so perhaps the problem is not just how much we talk, but how. Anyone can make noises and gesticulate, but few, it seems, can pause, breath, or reflect mid-sentence, mid-conversation. Try thinking about what has been said and you may find your interlocutor jamming your empty mouth with more words, filling your ears with more phrases.

Worse is that the words are frivolous fillers of space, thrown out into the world to suffocate the silence that our culture fears. In other cultures across the world silence is not seen as uncomfortable: in Asian cultures, they say, silence signals what it ought to – gravitas, contemplation – and in some cultures of the Sahara, I understand, silence at mealtimes was expected, while laughter, conversation and song would follow the feast. In Australian Aboriginal cultures silence is said to be much more present, seen, rather, as a skill. That silence is a skill seems to me such an elemental and obvious truth that it astounds me that we need to remind ourselves of this.

To see just how unnecessary words are, just take a look at the deaf. Often it is the eyes, eyebrows, lips, and the forty-three other facial muscles that tell us the same thing as, or better express, the spoken equivalent. But to do this requires patience, practise at listening; listening not only with your ears, but with your eyes and with concentration. Listening requires silence.

New to Lives and Times?

Why not begin your exploration of Lives and Times: writing on the world around us, with the article From Learning a Language to Living a Language.

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