It was past midnight as I sat with a friend at the 24-hour Fed-Ex/Kinko’s, sharing a King Size Kit-Kat bar. We reminisced, as seniors are wont to do, about how we met. “Let’s see. I used to talk to [insert name of mutual friend] all the time because he was a really good listener. So I kept dropping by his room, we became friends, then I guess I met you through him.”
Back up though — a person who is “good at listening?” Interesting. It’s a quality we sometimes forget about in the assortment of adjectives that we typically use to describe people. We often revert to the mundane adjectives: words like “nice” or “funny” or “easygoing” (known as “chill” in the vernacular). Describing a person as a good listener reaches a whole new level of articulateness. But really, when was the last time you described someone as “nice”? Okay. Now, when was the last time you described a friend as “a good listener?” Right.
In any case, people rarely are described as good listeners, and yet good listeners are pretty important people. You like talking to a good listener when you have something to share, and we all have things to share.
Don’t believe me? Start by identifying that one friend you have on Facebook whose wall is a long collection of things that he/she shares — news stories, funny YouTube videos or pictures of cute animals. Maybe this person goes so far as to like their own links and add comments to them. That’s one extreme. You get the idea.
Our desire to share isn’t only limited to technological means. Maybe you have a friend who takes advantage of the “Let’s Talk About Anything” campaign on campus, a group of students who sit in public areas with the namesake signs, welcoming anyone to come and engage them in conversation. Or maybe you have a friend who calls their parents every day because, let’s be honest, one of our parents’ primary obligations is to listen to us complain.
Of course, there’s more to sharing something than just sharing it. If you could talk to a wall and feel good about it, you would. You wouldn’t need to post things on Facebook or talk to the stranger with a sign sitting in White Plaza. But not many of us would feel satisfied conversing with a wall because most of the satisfaction we derive from sharing is in the response you get when you share something.
In the same way that you want to see the “likes” pop up on your Facebook post or a thread of comments develop on that link you just shared, you want the person with whom you’re speaking in person to respond to you. That’s what makes a good listener: you can see them absorbing everything you say, processing it and reacting to it.
What makes a bad listener? Last week I caught up with someone frustrated with one of her friends. “Whenever I’m in his room talking to him, he’s always checking his phone or staring at the computer. It’s really frustrating.”
It’s true, the technology surrounding us has made bad listening even easier to do. Think about the last time you hung out with a bunch of friends who all pulled out an iPhone and started checking you in at the restaurant or playing Angry Birds. That’s right — you just weren’t as interesting as Angry Birds. How does that make you feel?!
Still, you’re not safe even when your friend isn’t armed with an iPhone. The other day, after a rough night in which I got maybe three hours of fitful sleep in between tending to a distraught friend, I ran into one of my old roommates at a café, where I was feverishly adding sugar to a large coffee.
Now, I’m willing to bet that when most of us are in the mindset of “omgs, my life sucks right now,” we like to tell people about it. We love a good vent, a chance to complain, an opportunity for self-pity.
My friend saw me and enthusiastically asked, “How’s your day going!” How was my day going? “Terribly. I barely got any sleep, and one of my friends is really upset right now.”
What would you do if your friend said this to you? Hopefully you’re thinking that you’d ask what was wrong. You’d ask if you could help. You’d ask something — you’d react. Ideally.
So when my friend’s response was, “Oh that’s good, well anyway… followed by a launch into something completely unrelated and pertaining entirely to her, I was pretty irritated. I might as well have been talking to a wall, although at least a wall couldn’t have started talking about itself.
And this little interchange got me thinking. There’s a kid who lives down the hall in my dorm, and he prefaces 75 percent of what he says with, “Listen! Listen.” Whether he wants to get my attention or we’re already deep in conversation, he uses this phrase indiscriminately. I used to mock him — I’d say in response, “Listening! Listening.” But I have a greater appreciation for it now. When he asks me to listen, I will.
Miriam will listen to any comments you have. Send them over to [email protected]