“Democracy calls us to have uncomfortable conversations. It asks us to listen to each other even when we would rather be listening to ourselves—or to people enough like us that we might as well be listening to ourselves. It is easier and more comfortable for us to live in perpetual high dudgeon inside our echo chambers than it is to have a meaningful conversation with people who disagree with us.” Michael Austin
Dinnertime during my early childhood years was family time. We were a small family, just three of us, but every night we gathered round the table for dinner and conversation. This was a common family routine until the 1970s when women entered the workforce in droves and family lives grew exponentially complicated and rigorously scheduled.
What did we talk about as we partook of the meals mother prepared? Honestly, I don’t remember. My sister was so much older and more mature than I was that the bulk of conversations were adult-oriented between her and our mother. She was bright, well-read, and academically and intellectually advanced, so politics and philosophy were standard fare. I don’t remember being asked my opinion of the topics they discussed, but if I were to be anything more than a fly on the wall, I had to learn to be assertive. I became adept at firing off some idea, opinion, or response and then having to defend it. Sometimes I didn’t even believe what I spouted off, I was merely acting as devil’s advocate to add complication to the dialogue. Discussions weren’t gentle probes or affirmations. They were debate, often flaring into verbal battle. There wasn’t time to listen deeply to what the other person said; the response needed to be half formulated by the time the other person took a breath. There was no time to consider linguistic nuances or how a response might make the other person feel. Our words weren’t chess pieces, they were pickleball shots. And our feelings were not considerations.
After my sister moved on, the discussions continued between Mother and me. They were a little less combative, but could still flare into heated debates at any time. Later when our family expanded to include my step father and his daughter, Mom and I often shocked them with our dinnertime repartee.
Now, as I approach my seventh decade, I’m trying to adapt my conversational skills. I’m trying to slow down, to listen for understanding, to be curious before spouting my opinion, to acknowledge what I’ve heard and make sure I properly understand what the other person has said. It’s not easy. Habits are hard to break and social media in particular seems to prime the pump for the quick comeback. We’ve come to a point in the history of this nation where quick answers become fighting words. Discussions are often excuses to amplify our entrenched opinions. We solve no problems when we can’t hear each other.
“The fact is, people seldom truly speak with or listen to one another; more often than they care to admit, they deliver soliloquies, with each individual using another remark merely as a launching pad for his or her own performance.” Yi-Fu Tuan
Quotations from The Sun; Sunbeams. April 2022