Everybody's talkin' at ya

Did you ever stop and think about all the ways we avoid talking to each other and yet never shut up?

Writing a column and then reading the responses to it highlights one of the great human difficulties we all have, and that is truly communicating.

Oh, we all seem pretty good at stating our opinion. But things are often not what they seem.

A good friend of mine has counseled folks considering divorce for more than 20 years. She can't go into specifics with me, some sort of oath folks in her field take. But in general, she said, one of the biggest problems couples in trouble have is saying what they really mean. Or saying it so that the other person truly hears them.

Even in our more mundane daily lives, the problem of communication looms large.

I've been thinking about why that might be.

For starters, very few of us are really good listeners. As adults we've learned to act as if we are paying attention to the other person - watch little kids talk, all at once, all scrambling to have their say, yelling over the other kids if necessary - but below the surface most of us are still kids. We want to say what we want to say, not listen to you.

So, the very first corrective is some-thing within the power of all of us.

Instead of nervously waiting for the other person to wind down so we can jump in, we need to deep-breathe and try to really listen. Often, we won't like what we hear, but at least we might hear everything correctly.

Of course that leads to problem number two, which is more of a social problem than the basic human tendency to value our own opinions over everyone else's.

We are taught not to say what we really mean.

We are taught not to hurt other people's feelings.

"Do you want to make your Momma cry?"

"Do you want to stay after school and help Sister Cuthbert?"

The real answers there are probably yes and no. But no and then yes are what's expected.

All this avoidance starts early with the cultural insinuation that the truth hurts and thus folks should be spared it in the futherance of nice interactions.

I'm not sure exactly how we solve this problem without creating chaos.

If everyone always told everyone else exactly what was on their minds, the already high divorce and unemployment rates would skyrocket.

But a moderate version of Real Speak would probably help some.

In addition to these fundamental problems, there's also the way our culture tilts toward selling unnecessary stuff, not bartering necessities, which has led us way down the road of language debasement, and fouled the once-clear waters of everyday interaction.

Think about it.

Now that the Christmas season is upon us, the daily deluge of disingenuous and outright dishonest advertising has multiplied at a staggering rate.

Free! ad after ad screams. And yet reading the fine print quickly proves the lie.

Buy something big, get something little, free. Maybe. If my goal is to sell you something you probably really don't need, I am not going to rely much on the truth as I see it.

Our politicians too are blessed with the gifts of euphemism and circumlocution, and then sometimes they skim past all the codewords and pat phrases and go straight for the downright lie.

Even our newspapers, the field where I've labored for more than two decades, seem more and more hamstrung by a search for consensus and politically correct statement, in lieu of the partial truth available if the news is honestly gathered and reported.

When I began what I now, with the benefit of hindsight, laughingly call my career, at the CBS Television News outlet in the country's then 26th-largest market, Cincinnati, I had one editor, and he had one old-fashioned rewrite man. Between the three of us, stories were tossed into the maw.

Friends of mine who work at the dailies in this city today are always complaining about the layers of editing, some of which seem to be in place only to take the sting out of the reporting.

I've seen original stories saved before editing, and sent to me by reporters, and then compared that to what finally appeared in the newspaper. Points are rounded off. Opinion, however factual, is smoothed and filed down.

According to the reporters I know, most stories you read in the P-I and the Times have been messed about by as many as four to six pairs of hands and eyes.

There can rarely be real communication in such a flattening process, and without real communication there is little to be learned that couldn't be done by simply skimming the headlines.

Recent events at The New York Times and The New Republic, where star reporters were discovered to have made stories up wholecloth, might have been been averted if the editors worried more about what the stories said than how they said it.

Truth in advertising and all the news that's fit to print have sadly become just two more hackneyed phrases. But I believe we'd all start communicating a little better if the culture at large, for starters, went back to trying to live up to the sentiments expressed in just those two hoary maxims.

And then maybe we could start looking each other in the eye and saying at least some of what we really mean, but only after we first really listened to the other person.

Hey, I can dream, can't I?

Freelance writer Dennis Wilken resides in Lower Queen Anne. Write him c/o qanews@nwlink.com

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