Partway through my curiosity workshop this summer, after an exercise where participants came up with quick questions about each other’s favorite childhood memories, a woman raised her hand. She wanted to share one way she hadn’t listened to what her workshop partner was saying. “She told me about a day camp she’d gone to one summer. That made me think of the summer camp I went to, which was an overnight camp,” the woman said. “I asked her what the cabins were like, totally oblivious. I knew she’d said ‘day camp,’ but all I heard was my own idea of what summer camp was like.” Heads nodded around the room. This happens to all of us: When we try to picture someone else’s experience, we fill in the blanks with our own — sometimes at the expense of hearing theirs out fully. Some weeks later, I was reminded of what else can drown out reality: our fears.
When you’re heard all wrong…
I had just finished a campus talk I gave about how to stay curious across political divides when a student came up to me, introduced herself as liberal, and said some things I’m not about to forget. My book had been suggested reading for the school year, but she hadn’t read it, she told me, because she’d been too nervous to, “as of course you’d understand.” Would I? I thought, noting her assumption that I knew what she’d been so nervous about. “I want you to know you really made an impact on me, and I’m going to read your book now,” she said. “And if you’re around today or tomorrow… maybe you want to join me and some of the other students and we can talk about Trump?” That’s when it hit me. “Wait,” I said. “Do you think I voted for Trump?” “Didn’t you?” she said. I blinked. Just before my talk, I was introduced as “the proud liberal daughter of conservative parents.” In my first slide, I talked about the night I watched the 2020 election results with my parents, who asked to change the channel from CNN to Fox. “The advertisement for this event — it said you voted for Trump!” the student said. I checked the flier text. Nothing weird there. I checked with the organizers. They were mystified. I gave the student my number. Could she send me what she saw? Sure, she said. She hasn’t yet.
… Or not heard at all
Later that day, someone else who’d heard my talk asked if he could share a criticism. “You introduced your book by saying it was on Glenn Beck. But maybe you should have mentioned a more trusted mainstream media source that’s featured it.” I blinked again. I was sitting right there when the woman introducing me read verbatim a passage I’d written to deliberately cite a media source trusted on the left and another trusted on the right: “Her new book… was featured on the Glenn Beck Podcast and named a New York Times recommended read.” The New York Times... How did he miss it? I can’t know, but I have a guess. It’s based on what I’ve seen happen to me sometimes when I hear something that stuns or scares me. The man was a strong liberal passionate about Democratic issues. Is it possible that when he heard the words “was featured on the Glenn Beck Podcast,” his mind went, “Whoa, WHAT?!” so loudly in his own mind, that it didn’t let him catch what came right after it? I have a lot more questions to mull over from all this, like how it felt to meet someone who didn’t want to hear or learn from me because of how (she thought) I voted. That was… I mean, wow. But for now I’ll leave you with this: When we analyze communication, we tend to analyze the conversations we have with people around us. In the next edition, I’ll say more on the silent exchanges that manage to drown them all out — the conversations we have with ourselves. And how we might listen to them better.