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Are you listening? Because it looks like you’re texting.

Published: November 15, 2012, 12:47 am ET
Graphic courtesy of Carlton Zesch
"So next time someone wants to talk ... let's listen."
Opinion Editor

A few weeks ago, I had to take a long train ride.

As the train pulled out of the station, the lady next to me struck up a conversation. She asked where I was from, what school I went to and what I’d like to do with my life. When I fell silent, she’d ask another question, leaning in for the response, rapt. We ended up talking about things I wanted for my future that I’d never even told my friends. The longer I’d pause, the more questions she’d ask, eager to know more.

At the end of the ride, after we’d said goodbye and I was getting off the train, I realized what a remarkable experience it had been. To have someone actually listen to you — not fidget, glance elsewhere or interrupt with their own ideas, just sit there looking you straight in the face, absorbing what you’re saying — is something that’s incredibly rare in our lightening fast-paced world today.

Even more remarkable was that I hadn’t even known this woman — and would probably never see her again — and yet she’d spent her entire ride trying to get to know me. It wasn’t an exchange that would have had any benefit for her, yet she’d sat there absorbing my answers as if they were the most important things in the world. I felt almost guilty, as if her attention was a privilege I didn’t deserve.

There’s this sense today, as our phones chirp with Facebook notifications and emails every few milliseconds, that we’re busier than ever before. It’s a sense of urgency that if we take more than a few minutes out of our days to do something that won’t have a direct, positive impact on our own lives, we’d be wasting our time.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been talking to someone — at someone, rather — as they scroll through their iPhone. I could slip in, “Yeah, it’s been really nice out lately; I’m thinking of getting a tattoo of a dragon on my face, so yeah,” and they’d never notice. It’s a profound embarrassment realizing that what you’re saying isn’t as important as someone’s tweet or email, and it makes you want to stop talking altogether.

On the other side of things, I’ve found my mind wandering when someone’s trying to talk to me at times. Whether it’s not pushing my computer aside when a girlfriend sits down and initiates a conversation, or just letting my mind drift to an impending assignment or something I want to say about myself while a friend tells me about the horrible day they’d had, I’ve failed to give people who deserve it my full attention. I’ve had people walk away and felt guilty knowing that they felt as if I didn’t care. And I want to change that.

So next time someone wants to talk, whether it’s about something serious or just what they had for lunch that day, let’s listen. Before you lift your phone to check Instagram or tell the person you can’t talk because you’re “so busy,” think again. Is what you’re doing truly something that can’t wait a few moments?

Let’s show each other we care — that what we have to say does matter — by lending an ear when they need it and expecting the same in return.

Most friends won’t be around forever. Our Twitter feeds will.

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  • ChinaHome<3

    Is sthat n actual picture? i do not believe words could go and out from ears with the damaging to the cochlea. But it is a good and thought-invoked article

  • Will Offit

    Definitely agree, and I think we’re all guilty of this. There’s definitely not as much connectivity between us anymore. Human relationships are being undervalued while new technologies are taking over. Great article.