When deafness is a crime

by Gautam Raja

Given that we are social creatures, and that even our physical health depends on positive interaction with our own species, it’s astonishing how many of us are terrible listeners.

There are people, for instance, who’ll ask you what you’ve been doing, but as soon as you’ve squeezed off half a sentence, use that as a launch pad to talk about themselves for the next 20 minutes. There are others who make the right noises as you talk, but are actually thinking about something else, usually what they’re going to interrupt you with. Others ask you a question, and just as you start to answer, pull out their phones and start texting.

Let’s be fair though. We cannot possibly be like attentive schoolchildren all the time. But sadly, it’s not uncommon to find people who go through their entire lives deaf to other humans. This doesn’t just mean that they don’t hear what somebody says, but that even when they do, they dismiss it. They might respond to everything you say with an attitude of “This is obvious, everybody knows this”, for example. Or might outdo all the time. “Oh that’s nothing.” Or might be bloody mindedly contrary, even about stuff they know nothing about. “No, it’s not like that. What rubbish.” But often, quite simply, they just don’t hear a word you say—either thinking about something else as you say it, or having decided they already know what’s coming.

It’s facile to suggest that listening is just about hearing, because it can involve all the senses. Cooking is about listening. As is pottery. Reading body language is listening: picking up on what people are thinking or feeling, and navigating living rooms with respect for others. For example, one bad listener I know constantly talks over other people’s conversations, with no awareness of how infuriating this habit is. Another doles out unsolicited advice, blind to how stiff the backs of the recipients become.

This me-at-the-centre attitude is easily translated, in that self-deceiving way humans have, into something positive. Maybe the person thinks of themselves as having a lot to share, that they are wise and experienced and everybody must stop to hear them. Or that they’re owed the right to behave as they want; that they’ve paid their dues in some way. Often, I’m sure, the person just assumes they’re better than everyone else.

To others though, they come through as insecure, self-absorbed, intolerant and insensitive. Non-listeners are hard to be with, keeping everybody on edge, sucking positive energy out of rooms. They are often puzzled that they get no respect, not realising that respect needs to flow both ways. Their deafness carries into the physical world as well. Terrible listeners are often terrible drivers. Or they never “listen” to the objects they manipulate, fumbling with them for months, or damaging them by pressing too hard or turning too far.

I think listening is crucial, because it’s about respect and good manners. It’s about recognising that people are individuals with opinions and stories, even ones who are younger and less experienced. It’s about knowing when you are standing on somebody’s toes—even if those metaphorical toes are, unexpectedly, far longer than yours. It is understanding that people are different from you, and that this is okay. The most beautiful thing about listening though, is that you see the best that people have to offer: themselves. Non-listeners don’t realise that they do not know the inner truth of the people around them, not even their loved ones. Because you see, no one gives—and I mean really gives—to a person who will not take.

First published in Gulf News, December 1, 2009