The Battle to Seize the Ear


I work remotely. That means that my office is in one state and I live in another. So meetings happen by Skype or phone or email. All of which is fine until a large staff meeting. Because what happens is the dynamic of a largely female office – people talking over one another, people laughing, people forgetting that anyone listening in via teleconference is unable to pull apart the strands of individual conversations. It’s a wave of noise.

I love my coworkers, so after some good-natured grumbling into the speakerphone, I’m fine. And they try to be mindful of my invisible presence, at least until enthusiasm for the topic at hand takes them away again.

But it makes me wonder: is anyone really listening anymore?

Watch the morning shows. The hosts – and it’s usually the women – all talk at the same time, interrupting in their eagerness to have their say. Even when they interview one on one, the producer’s voice in their earbud means they can only half-listen to what the celebrity or politician is saying. It doesn’t matter what the answer is in the interview, it matters what the next question is going to be.

I find myself doing the same thing. Part of me registers what my companion is saying, part of me searches for the clever retort.

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera, he describes the illusion of a conversation:

“You know what happens when two people talk. One of them speaks and the other breaks in: “It’s absolutely the same with me, I…” and starts talking about himself until the first one manages to slip back in with his own “It’s absolutely the same with me, I…”

The phrase “It’s absolutely the same with me, I…” seems to be an approving echo, a way of continuing the other’s thought, but that is an illusion: in reality it is a brute revolt against a brutal violence, an effort to free our own ear from bondage and to occupy the enemy’s ear by force. Because all of man’s life among his kind is nothing other than a battle to seize the ear of others.”

I sometimes think psychologists’ offices are filled not only with the mentally ill, but with the terminally lonely, the ones wanting someone to just listen. To do nothing else but really listen.