Several years ago, my husband and I attended a special event hosted by a good friend. She placed us at a table with a couple in their forties and assured us we would enjoy talking with them. After initial introductions, the conversation halted. For a time we busied ourselves with salad, but when neither the husband nor the wife said anything, I began to ask them some questions. I discovered that they lived and worked in an area of Pennsylvania where my husband and I began our careers. Upon more questions to the husband (he tended to answer each of my queries, then stop talking), I learned as an executive with a local corporation, he had been interviewed by the newspaper I once wrote for. When I shared this information, he stared and went back to eating.
Entrees arrived and I decided to try the wife. Seeing that she was very tall, I asked where she went to college and if she played sports. She perked up and told me she played volleyball. My niece also played volleyball in college, I told her. Again, silence and more digging into food. After a few more attempts, I gave up. My husband, who also had failed to engage the couple, turned to me and we finished the dinner talking to each other.
I thought back to this encounter while reading David Brooks’ column in Sunday’s New York Times, a preview of his new book, How to Know a Person – The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen. “I’ll be leaving a party or some gathering and I’ll realize: That whole time, nobody asked me a single question,” he wrote. “I estimate that only 30 percent of the people in the world are good question askers. The rest are nice people, but they just don’t ask. I think it’s because they haven’t been taught to and so don’t display basic curiosity about others.”
After the wedding, my husband and I had long conversations about what had transpired at our table. Was this couple just plain rude? I didn’t think so, because when I asked questions they became animated in their answers. Were they ignoring us because we are old? This attitude, unfortunately, is something I encounter frequently with younger people finding older people invisible. Again, in this case, I don’t think so, since telling the husband I once worked for the newspaper he interacted with was proof that I was, and maybe still was, a writer. Have GenXers and Millennials, preoccupied with social media, lost the ability to interact in person? Maybe.
Brooks, based on his personal experience and the research he talks about, believes that people are divided into two camps: diminishers and illuminators. According to Brooks, diminishes are self-absorbed to an extent that they make others feel insignificant. Illuminators are curious about others. They ask questions hoping to view things from other points of view.
Needless to say, illuminators “are a joy to be around.” Diminishes? Well, think about some of the people you interact with. If you find some or most of these encounters difficult or even painful, then you now know why.
I’m reluctant to place people into either category. Maybe diminishers aren’t always so selfish, but react based on the person they are talking with. Also, like a light bulb, illuminators may be able to turn their curious personality on and off depending upon the circumstance.
But I do believe that as humans we have lost something precious that gets to the heart of our relationships. We should have a natural interest in others and be able to ask questions without being intrusive or becoming distracted. Maintain eye contact and forget about our phones. And being empathetic doesn’t mean turning the spotlight back on ourselves by cutting someone off. How many times have you told someone you have a problem only to have that person say they, too, are suffering. (Brooks calls these people “toppers.”) Suddenly they stop listening to you and instead talk about themselves. Sharing experiences is great, but not when we ignore or downplay what someone else is going through.
Brooks has great suggestions in his book that can help all of us see others and also be seen. I will just offer one idea: the next time you meet someone, ask one question, then listen, really listen to the answer. As Epictetus said: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
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