“What are your three desert island books?” I ask a friend in Donut Crazy at half past 11 p.m. on a Friday night that’s too warm for late September. We’re sitting on the retro leather couches, and his face is illuminated by the red neon sign that reads, “Let’s eat donuts!”
“It,” he says. “By Stephen King. Three identical copies for all three of my choices.”
Later that night, my suitemate will say, “a coloring book,” as her third option, and another boy will say, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” as his first.
While at Yale, I have made it a habit to ask trivial and safe questions to any unsuspecting victims. These range from friends over meals to bystanders whose names I don’t even know yet. For some reason or another, people never mind answering. Maybe we’re all just narcissists, but there’s something oddly endearing in the way that people jump at the opportunity to be asked about which superpower they would rather have, or which language they wish they could speak fluently.
Most of all, people loved to be listened to. At Yale, we so often fail to pay attention — our thoughts focused on an upcoming midterm or problem set — but listening to others, as opposed to just hearing them, makes all the difference.
I can tell you that the girl who lives in my entryway sheepishly wishes she could go to Paris more than anywhere else in the world, and that the girl who I met in the Murray dining hall will adamantly declare that “Friends” is the most overrated TV show of all time. But the most striking aspect of it all is the surprise others have when they see that you listened. This, I believe, speaks volumes about the flawed conversation culture at Yale.
The surprised reaction people have when they realize that you reserved a handful of brain cells to remember something they said — something that does not relate to you whatsoever — never fails to make me a little sad. Why have so many people been ignored, their confessions about themselves rejected as mindless small talk rather than something to pay attention to? Why do we even have conversations if we’re only thinking about what we’re going to say next and not listening to what the person in front of us is trying to communicate?
But, more than anything, why do we speak if we don’t think we’re being listened to? It shouldn’t be so unheard of that someone remembered that your favorite movie is the third Harry Potter, or the fact that you would eat peanut M&M’s for the rest of your life if you could. This needs to be standard, and having the conversational bar so low is only perpetuating this series of half-friendships that never really break the surface.
How can we claim we want soul-bearing, late-night conversations when we can’t even spend the energy listening to someone tell us about their hometown? Unless, of course, it has some connection to our own.
We live busy lives, but if we have the capacity to listen inside of our classes, then we need to also be able to listen outside of them. You might not be graded on what a friend is telling you, but that does not make it irrelevant. Life is more than just what we are learning in class, and if that’s all we’re paying attention to, then we are being deprived of one of the greatest beauties of the human experience — knowing other people. Not just knowing what they sound like or the kind of comments they make in a literature seminar — but instead knowing what makes them tick, why they feel sad when they do and what makes them laugh.
We can’t keep having conversations just because we feel like that’s something we should be doing. It is crucial to learn how to be engaged in dialogue, to learn how to stay attentive, off your phone and really digest what is being said to you. This is how we form better connections with the people around us who have something to say.
Next time you’re having a conversation with someone, whether it be on the way to class with an acquaintance or over a cup of coffee with your best friend, I urge you to stop and ask yourself if you’re listening. Don’t start planning your next response as soon as your mouth stops moving. Be present.
Here at Yale, we have access to a multitude of people with diverse experiences, ideas and beliefs. You are doing a disservice to yourself if you are having conversations with them just for the sake of talking or filling empty space. These are complex people who have so many things to teach you. Listen to them in the way you want to be listened to yourself.
DEREEN SHIRNEKHI is a first year in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .