At Daniel Beaty’s one-man performance of “Mr. Joy” last weekend, I watched as he brilliantly navigated portrayals of various characters with differing identities and experiences. But more importantly, I listened. Something about Beaty’s performance made listening seem like the most natural of instincts; even when a character was saying something that I disagreed with or that I found problematic, I listened. I wasn’t forming counter-arguments in my head, and I wasn’t even at the point of processing what was said (be it on an intellectual or emotional level). All that I was doing in that moment was listening, and I realized how rarely I focus solely on that act. Of course, part of what made this listening experience so potent was the fact that this was a performance, which is created with the intention of capturing the audience’s attention and making us stop and listen. But can we experience this phenomenon of truly listening outside of the theater, too?
Art makes us stop and listen, but perhaps we can do the same for each other in day-to-day conversation. It’s not that I believe that we enter conversations with the goal of not listening. Most discussions that I’ve been a part of on this campus have led me to believe that our student body genuinely cares about hearing each other; the problem is that sometimes we just don’t know how. In my College of Letters class this week, we’ve been reading texts of early Western monasticism, and one of the main themes of these texts is the value of silence. One is instructed to be humble in approaching their own speech, and to realize that there can be more piety in silence than in speech, even regarding matters of religious devotion. At first, I was skeptical that this concept could apply to college life; encouraging silence seems like a terrible blow to students’ self-esteem and an attempt to stifle discussion. But while those aspects of silence certainly exist, I also began to wonder whether there might be some value to the occasional silence, and I realized that our collective fear of silence can actually have some negative effects on the quality of our conversations and the frequency with which we actually listen to each other.
The fear of silence is visible in our daily social interactions. When a conversation lags at a party or at dinner at Usdan, someone will usually chime in almost immediately to fill a potentially awkward silence. Often, the silence-filler of choice is not exactly full of substance: “So what class do you have next? Do you have a lot of homework tonight?” There’s nothing wrong with these conversations, but if you have them frequently enough, it can start to feel as though your interactions are characterized by speaking without really saying anything, and listening without learning anything new or important about the person with whom you’re speaking. In this way, the fear of physical silence leads to a kind of figurative silence; by speaking so much, we begin to say a lot less.
The instinct to stay away from silence is present in our classes, too. Students often feel the need to speak as much as possible, be it to impress the professors or their classmates, or simply because they have something to say and want the feedback of their peers and professors. Speaking up and sharing one’s opinions in class is undoubtedly a positive instinct. But I’ve had too many conversations with students who say that they made a comment in class that they didn’t truly mean or believe in, simply because they wanted to show the professors that they were participating. This instinct can have the same effect as the filling of our awkward silences at dinner: when we do say something that we mean, it becomes all the more difficult for others to recognize the power and importance of those statements that we truly care about.
Talking frequently in class can also have an even more dire effect: it can stifle other voices. Of course, the student that talks in class doesn’t mean to take space away from others, but by speaking often and occupying a significant amount of space in the conversation, the student is inadvertently removing opportunities for others to speak. While we have an academic obligation to participate in our classes, we also have a moral obligation to make sure that we are speaking in a way that does not infringe on other students’ abilities to express themselves. This includes both being careful with the actual amount of time that we are speaking, as well as actively attempting to speak in a way that welcomes other points of view. Even the tone of our comments in class can have an effect on the space that we leave open for others; by avoiding speaking with total confidence in our opinions and accounting for the fact that we could be wrong, we open up space for others who might feel intimidated by a more certain attitude.
The stress that class participation places on the student can have the opposite effect, as well; students decide not to talk for fear that their ideas will seem trite or silly. Ideally, a delicate balance should be struck in class discussion: students shouldn’t feel pressured to speak when they don’t really have anything that they want to say, but if the student has something they’d like to say, they should not be deterred by questions like “Is this a smart enough opinion?” or “Has someone else already said something similar?” Personally, I’ve found that the classes that spark the most vibrant and diverse discussions are those that actively encourage students to ask any and all questions and to make any comments that come to mind, regardless of how articulately they are expressed or how carefully they have been formed. Of course, a college curriculum is intended to teach students the art of articulately expressing their thoughts, and so classes should focus on helping students reach a point at which they can express their views eloquently and utilize effective argumentation. However, each and every student reaches this level at a different rate, and courses that allow students to feel comfortable participating, no matter what level of “eloquence” they feel themselves to be at, seem to be the most beneficial in teaching the student to gradually grow in these skills, since only by speaking can the student then learn to speak well.
Being mindful of our conversational practices in class and in social settings seems like a good place to start, but these practices are just the effects of a larger problem: the fact that we are often too distracted to truly listen to one another. Listening doesn’t mean giving up our own voices; instead, it means taking the time to focus solely on the words of another person. It’s easy to start thinking about how we might respond to someone’s opinions, even while they are still talking; however, doing so minimizes the opportunity that we have to really get to see where another person is coming from. We must acknowledge that this ability to converse openly with each other is often hindered by systemic issues, such as limitations on the speech of marginalized groups and the fact that many of those who should be present for important conversations are simply not able or privileged to be there. When we do find ourselves privileged to engage in open discourse with our peers, each of us has the obligation to make sure that we are listening more, even if that sometimes means speaking less.
Fattal is a member of the Class of 2017.