Why Listening, Really Listening, Might Be Declining

One of the comments made in Celeste Headlee’s book “We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter” (or perhaps one of her videos) is that we may have been better conversationalists before the printing press was invented. Put another way, the rise of mass literacy may have caused us to become poorer listeners.

My sense is that it’s happening again.

Prior to mass literacy we shared information orally, or more correctly, aurally. It was the spoken word, and listening to the spoken word, that facilitated our collective memory. As one example, history was passed from generation to generation in the form of spoken stories, retold by each successive generation. The ability to do so depended highly on two very important factors: each generation’s speakers ability to tell a story, and each generation’s listener’s ability to take that story in.

Naturally the process was far from perfect, but even so it was the basis for most generational transfer of knowledge. Not just history, but medicine, trade, craft, and more all relied almost exclusively on the ability to speak and the ability to listen.

Then came mass production of the printed word. Information recorded could be disseminated widely, and preserved indefinitely, all without the need for — and the constant re-interpretations of — individual storytellers and listeners. As a result the need for people to tell good stories, and in turn the need for people to listen most attentively, probably declined.

Certainly there remained (and remain) good story tellers, and certainly there remained folks who can truly listen and absorb what they hear, but as a society, on average, those skills likely declined with the invention of the printing press, and the subsequent mass distribution of printed information.

Would we change anything? Probably not. There’s no argument that the printing press and printed works have altered the course of humanity — the course of history — for the better. More people know more, have access to more, and are more empowered and better off than they would have been without it.

But if we knew then that a decline in aural skills might follow, would we have done anything differently?

Could we have?

We’re at a similar crossroads today: the internet as a communication mechanism has further reduced our need to listen well. If we forget what was said, we go back and review the email, or text, or whatever form the story took. The internet as a base of knowledge has reduced our need to know or remember things. If we need to find something out, we search for it. The search engines have even reduced our need to know how to do so-called “real” research. If we’re looking for something, we just Google it.

Each of these is imperfect, without a doubt. Written communications can be poorly worded, misinterpreted, or lost. Not all knowledge is on the internet. Not everything we find in a Google search is accurate. But, by-and-large, we are better — more efficient — with these tools than without them. Most of the time they work and work well. More people know more, have access to more, and are more empowered and better off than they would be without them.

But we’re not listening as well. We’re not researching as well. We’re not retaining as well. The need to do each has declined, and with it our incentive to remain skilled.

Knowing that this decline in ability might follow from our decreasing reliance on them, is there now something we would choose to do differently?

I’m honestly not sure.

Looking at the decline in aural skills following the rise of mass literacy, I’m not sure there’s anything I could, or would think to change then.

And I’m in the same position now.

Knowing that this is coming, what might I change?

I don’t know.

How about you?

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