As we walked to the farmers’ market, right before the weather became chilly in October, my friend and I laughed and reminisced about a seminar we took together. We imitated how pretentious we could sound. We couldn’t decide which words were the worst: synthesizing, paradigm, contextualize or echoing.
But more importantly, my friend remarked that almost everyone at Yale likes to talk, few like to listen. Everyone feels this the second that they step onto campus. But even more alarming, when we claim to listen, we don’t really listen. We are simply waiting for our turn to speak.
None of us are completely immune to it. Sometimes, during a conversation, we get so excited about telling a story that we spend time thinking about how to tell it while the other person is speaking. Or we get nervous in class so we mentally rehearse our response. Sometimes, we speak because we do not feel listened to, thus beginning a cycle in which we talk more and listen less, only because we want to be listened to in the first place.
Most often, we are consumed in making the story about ourselves. It may just be plain narcissism.
All of us are familiar with seminars. The way we perform, posture and pontificate to show everyone how positively brilliant we are. Even during shopping period, when we’re asked why we want to take a particular class, we spend more time thinking about what we will say than listening to our potential peers. We’re so focused on comparing our comments — is mine compelling enough to get a spot in this seminar? Then, in the following weeks, it is as if you have to prove your intelligence.
Some seminars never grow out of the habit. There are few classes where I’ve had real conversations and far more where I’ve merely seen performances.
Seminar is not theater. It is designed to instruct and enrich students even more than a traditional lecture. This isn’t a debate tournament. When we listen, we create a conversation where we actually learn more instead of prove we did the reading. When we listen, we focus less on what we say and rather on the knowledge that others can impart on us.
Listening can be hard even in our own interactions with friends and acquaintances. We use superficial conversation and crowded dining halls to avoid really listening — and talking about things worth listening to.
But, as with anything, listening takes practice. For example, I believe in talking to strangers (in safe settings). My brother once rolled his eyes at me in the airport security line after I made conversation with the people behind us in line (“Jesus, Hala, do you have to talk to everyone?”) My friends always balk at my ability to make conversation with anyone. Even in interview waiting rooms, seeing my competition face-to-face, I can’t help but strike up conversation.
The best way to learn to listen is to talk to strangers. I’ve been surprised at the degree of vulnerability people are willing to show, how much they are willing to share. After all, I am a stranger to them, too. Without knowing the other person across the table, it becomes easier to open up without consequences.
Listening to strangers opens up your world view. Think about how complex your life is. Now, if yours is so complicated, so is the person’s next to you, filled with its own list of crazy stories and heartbreaks and triumphs. John Koenig, in his YouTube channel “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” calls this feeling “sonder.” There are so many stories in front of us to be excavated with humble introductions and a genuine desire to listen.
Yes, not every conversation will run smoothly and produce an instant connection. There will be plenty of awkward moments — but, honestly, no one will remember. Feeling a tinge of embarrassment is a small price to pay for some insight. In learning to listen, we become not only better friends and coworkers, we become better people.
Whether with strangers or in seminar, with roommates or with people on the train, just listen. You’ll be surprised at what you hear.
HALA EL SOLH is a senior in Berkeley College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .