by ALLISON CRYER
I am afraid that the art of conversation is on its way to becoming a thing of the past.
Instead of interacting and connecting with one another, many people today tend to fling random ideas and thoughts at each other aimlessly, hoping maybe just one might connect, or even be heard by the listener. It seems like before you can even finish a sentence, there is always someone in the room interrupting the conversation with their two cents.
What happened to the art of conversation – the graceful back and forth dance that flows smoothly and leaves little room for confusion?
Sometimes I feel like I am talking to a wall. Not only do people not listen, but often what is said to the listener is filtered first through their own biases and assumptions, which can potentially lead to confusion and in my case, unwarranted accusations of racism.
Here is an example of how quickly a civil conversation can go bad when listening is last on the priority list.
A while back, I had to call one of the utility companies to start service and set up a new account.
The phone rings and after 15 minutes of cheesy elevator music, an operator picks up on the other end of the line.
“Thank you for calling the utility company, where our customers always come first. Can I get your name, address, phone number, Social Security number, birth date, previous account number, and also when and where you would like to connect your service?” he blurted – all without breathing.
“Yes, you may,” I answered simply.
There were a few seconds of awkward silence when I didn’t respond as he had intended. Sometimes I can’t help but be sarcastically literal.
“Ok, then let’s start with your name and address,” he said hesitantly.
“Which one?” I asked.
“Do you go by multiple names?” he replied.
“No, I meant do you need my current address or the one I am moving to next week?” I asked.
The conversation was already beginning to break down.
“What-is-the-name-of-the-street-to-where-you-are-moving,” he asked slowly as if I was in kindergarten.
“The-name-of-the-street-is – “ the phone cut out for half a second, “ – Plaquemine,” I said in a robot voice. “Would you like me to spell it out –”
“ – Wow, that’s rude” he said defensively.
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to insult you,” I said, slightly confused. “It’s a tricky word to spell, that’s –”
“ – Nevermind,” he interrupted again. “Living in the South, I should be used to it.”
I responded, “Used to what? What did I –”
“ – Please tell me your street name,” he interjected.
I took a deep breath and then tried again. “I told you, Plaquemine –” but he interrupted me yet another time before I could spell it out.
“ – Are you going to tell me what street you live on, or not?” he asked, losing patience.
I started laughing nervously, and said, “Plaquemine. I would think you people would know Plaquemine,” being that the operator worked for a utility company located in our town. “It is spelled like plaque, like on your teeth –”
“ – I do not have black on my teeth, and I am getting tired of you addressing me as ‘black man.’ That is very racist! I cannot open your account if you do not give me your street name.”
We both laughed when we realized what had happened. Had he let me finish spelling out my street name instead of jumping to conclusions, he would have realized that I was not, in fact, referring to him as ‘black man,’ but desperately trying to relay to him I lived on Plaquemine Street.
The moral of this story is, be sure to listen carefully to the person talking to you, and not the voice in your head, or you could mistakenly call someone out as racist.
I think that the dynamic of the conversation changed drastically with the introduction of social media, the Internet and the wide-scale use of computers into our society over the last several decades. Maybe the circuitry in our brains has changed thanks to massive amounts of our time being spent on surfing the web or staring at our smart phones. Maybe we are becoming more like computers ourselves – unable to successfully interact without proper programming or pre-generated responses.
I don’t know the answer, but I do know most of us are all guilty of not truly listening to others. We keep our brains running while others talk and we only hear what they have to say in relation to ourselves.
I encourage everyone to take the time to try really listening to someone, and if possible, look them in the eye instead of staring blankly down at your smart phone. Take the time to think through your responses before you blurt them out. Practice the art of conversation, or you stand the chance of being misunderstood or even labeled as a racist.
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