Active Listening


I find a seat on the tram, make sure it’s not covered in urine, and sit. I bury my nose in my book to enjoy twenty minutes of uninterrupted reading time.

One of the most necessary parts of my day are my tram rides to and from work. Heading to work, I lose myself in a good book before dealing with the shit storm that is university teaching. Leaving work I depressurize and unwind after the shit storm that is university teaching.

Reading is my happy place; it’s necessary for my mental stability. While I love working with people, I need to be left the hell alone sometimes. As I read, I enter a different world, and the stress of the day disappears.

‘Mmm mmmm mmmmm mmmmm mmmmm mmmmm mmmmm mmmmmm mmmmm mmmmm’

My happy place is being invaded. I am no longer reading about the worries and adventures of George Smiley and his spy buddies, I am listening to the Czech woman on the phone next to me.

Active listening encompasses the physical and verbal cues which let a person know we are listening and imbibing what they are saying. Physically, we nod our heads as we take in information, squint our eyes to show that we are thinking more deeply about information, and purse our lips at distressing information.

In my travels, I have found that every culture has a specific set of verbal cues for active listening. Americans say things like ‘OK’ and ‘aha’ to express the novelty of your information and ‘interesting’ when we’ve missed what you’ve said, but want to throw out a blanket response to cover any base. British people fall down and convulse at the overwhelming pressure of having to talk to another person. Ethiopians listen and then take a sharp high-pitched intake of breath, and the Japanese follow your informative story line with a series of groans that suggests they are absolutely amazed by what you are saying or, possibly, that Godzilla has just climbed over the building behind you.

And the Czechs go ‘Mmmm mmmmm mmmmmm mmmmmmm mmmmmm mmmmmm.’

They raise the intonation when the information is especially interesting and cut their mmmm to a clipped mm in order to convey that the information has somehow disconcerted them. At a brainstorming meeting in June with three Czechs they Mmmm Mmmm’ed so much that I felt like a bank robber who had duct taped over the mouths of his hostages.

The woman next to me is doing just that right now, as I try to keep my attention in this book and away from her constant string of Mmmm’s. After I am unsuccessful, I try instead to divert my attention from the fantasy I’m having of bludgeoning her to death with her phone. I reassure myself that while I am going to the end of the line, she will probably get off soon, right?

Wrong.

OK, it’s a 20 minute trip, she can’t be on the phone that long, can she? Well, no, but on the bright side, when she’s done actively listening to the person on the phone, she calls someone else to actively listen to them.

I am rather amazed that this person is speaking on the phone on a tram in the first place with no self-consciousness. You see, a tram in the Czech Republic is both quiet and tense. If you get on the phone, you are instantly heard and judged. And one of the Czech national talents is the ability to convey hatred, judgement, and annoyance without moving or saying anything. If I speak in English, they send out a listen to this arrogant American prick vibe and if I speak Czech they send out a listen to this American fool try to speak our language vibe.

I decide that this talent falls under the category of active listening, so I try to emulate it. I sigh a few times, send out a please shut the f**k up, vole vibe, but she doesn’t react to any of it. I purse my lips and look back at my book, reading the same paragraph over and over as she mmms her way into my frontal lobe. I give up and close my eyes. As she calls her third person to mmm to the information they give her, I slip into the realm of the hypothetically criminally insane. Maybe we’ll meet Godzilla.

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