By Carol Mizrahi
The wise old owl sat on an oak
The more he heard, the less he spoke.
The less he spoke, the more he heard.
I wish more folks were like that bird!
More and more people are talking, but fewer are listening. They HEAR you all right, but they aren't LISTENING. They don't even pretend. Just watch them — fumbling with their smartphones, cleaning their nails, making lists, staring into space.
Some are too busy formulating a response to what you haven't finishing saying, which is why midsentence, you are interrupted with "Oh, that reminds me " or "Funny you should say that ..." and BOOM! You've been hijacked, and speaker and listener have changed roles. There are "listeners" who are simply waiting to "one-up" you. You'll be in the middle of describing your boat trip on the Mississippi when you are suddenly cut off with: "That reminds me of the year I lived in Ghana, and the village chief taught me how to play the ju-ju net shaker."
Then there are the listeners who can't wait to make you wrong so they can be right. You say: "We were in Calgary last month, in the province of Alberta" and they grab their smartphones and begin pecking away like robins looking for worms. If — after a minute or two — they quietly put down their phones and study their shoes, you've been validated. Calgary IS in the province of Alberta.
There is also a preponderance of listeners with nothing to say but who have a pathological need to keep their mouths moving. They trail your speech with a flow of empty syllables like "uh-huh ... yeah ... and right." I'm not sure why they do this. Possibly they miss the sounds of their own voices, which is understandable given that the number of talking opportunities has been significantly reduced, "thanks" to the growth of social media, emailing, texting, instagrams, Pinterest, etc. The result: The number of people who want to be heard has increased exponentially ...
... which is not to say that all talkers are entitled to good listeners — because they're not! Talkers have to earn an audience by practicing the Golden Rule of Communication: "Talk unto others as you would have them talk unto you." "Conversation" in Webster is defined as an exchange of ideas, opinions, etc., which reminds me of a conversation (more like a monologue) I overheard last week in a coffee shop. A man was describing his recent hiking vacation to a friend. I listened in, thinking I might learn something. Because most of what I know about hiking is that it's a lot like walking — only more so. You put one foot ahead of the other, and then the "other" in front of the "one," and you don't stop until you get to wherever it is you're going. And you carry a water bottle.
So I listened to this motor mouth describe in painful detail all the nooks and crannies, hills and dales, and flora and fauna he'd seen on his hike. If he hadn't been so caught up with himself, he might have noticed that his friend had — for all practical purposes — left the room. He was staring at the ceiling — mesmerized by a fly walking upside down.
Then, suddenly, the hiker shouted: "Now look at this, Joe!" Joe and I were yanked out of our reverie: Joe to the iPad on the table, and me to the crossword puzzle on mine. But there was no getting away from it — the hiker's second telling of his trek through nooks and crannies, hills and dales, and flora and fauna, now enhanced and expanded with photos.
Toxic talkers like the hiker, who can deliver three or more manuscript pages (over 1,500 words) without any input from or questions to "others," are not entitled to listeners. There is only one avenue to take when in the company of narcissistic talkers — the escape route.
Recent research shows that the people who talk the most are the same people who rate themselves the highest on listening skills. Given this 21st-century reality, that wise old owl from days of yore needs to add another tune to his repertoire, one that better reflects the realities of the 21st century:
A wise old owl sat on a tree
Listening, listening endlessly
No chance to add a word or two
He flew away. And so should you.
Carol Mizrahi is the author of the blog "The Bottom Whine" (thebottomwhine.blogspot.com) and "Coming of Age ... AGAIN," a novel. She lives in Champaign.