Growing up, authority figures (mostly teachers) said to my peers and me, “God gave us two ears and one mouth to listen more than we speak,” so many times, it went far past tiresome and into the territory of sweet-mercy-if-I-hear-that-one-more-time-I’m-going-to-punch-somebody-in-the-throat. (It also rankled me because even at a very early age, I was pretty sure I didn’t believe in God. Or at the very least, I didn’t feel the presence of God in the world, didn’t feel the need for God in my life, and found the idea that God gave humans anything more unbelievable than the idea that a baby could be sent by rocket to Earth where he’d grow up to have amazing powers far beyond those of mortal men.)
But still, I’ve come to realize it’s often better to listen than it is to speak.
Author John Scalzi has a really great blog post about how important it is for those of privilege (in this specific case, straight white males like Scalzi and me) to generally shut up and listen when those with less privilege (people of color, people who aren’t heterosexual, women) are talking about what it’s like to be in a position of less privilege. Seriously, go read that blog post, especially if you are, like Scalzi and me, a straight white male. Because it really is important sometimes to shut the fuck up and listen to what other people have to say.
There are many reasons why I love the people in my family, but I’ll admit, I got a bad habit from them. My family is generally much better at speaking than listening. We’re all generally waiting for the other person to stop talking so that we can say the Very Important Things we have in our heads. Some of this is because people in my family are, for the most part, really damn intelligent and knowledgeable on a good many topics. We tend to get around and to change jobs and careers often, so we tend to have a wide range of experiences to drawn on. We tend to be charming, entertaining speakers, so it’s usually fun to listen to us speak. We’re also opinionated as hell and we tend to have egos big enough to make us think that almost everything we have to say is a Very Important Thing, whether it really is or not.
My ex-wife used to try to talk to me about her depression and other psychological issues. (This was before I was diagnosed with generalized depression and anxiety, and I thought I wasn’t “crazy,” just really moody and quirky.) I honestly was confused when she would get upset with me for offering suggestions about how she should deal with her mental issues. I was on her side and was only trying to help! Wasn’t that what I was supposed to do? Finally, she had enough and told me to shut up and just listen. It took a few more times of her telling me this before it sunk in, but it was one of the most important things I learned in our marriage–and one of the most important things I’ve learned in my life. I finally began to realize that the best thing I could do when other people were talking to me was to shut up and listen, not to think about what I was going to say next, not to think about how I would solve the person’s problem, not to think about the Very Important Things they needed to hear me say. Just shut up, listen, and then think about what they said. Stop thinking that what I have to say is important and realize that what other people are saying is important.
I can still get caught up in my own head, still find myself thinking of Very Important Things to say. But I’m continuing to get it through my thick skull that even though (all modesty aside) I’m quite intelligent, have a lot of experience and am an entertaining speaker, I really don’t know all that much in the grand scheme of things. When someone else is talking, it’s best for me to shut my one mouth and give them both of my ears. It’s respectful, it’s humble, and it’s just the right thing to do.
I’m going to shut up now.