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Listening vs. Obeying

This week I heard several people talking about people who "won't listen." In all three cases it was someone who was older talking about someone who was younger. (I almost wrote that I heard several people talking about "children, students and teenagers" who won' t listen, but I decided this creates artificial divisions, and all people are people, regardless of their age.) First it was a university psychology student talking about her younger brother. She said he is "ADHD." I asked her what she meant by that and she said, "He won't listen." When I asked her to explain further she said, "You tell him not to do something and he does it anyhow." In a playfully provoking tone, I asked her why she thought he should listen to her. She smiled defensively and looked away as she realized she didn't have a good answer. The best she could come up with was, "Because I am his older sister." I said, "So...?" She laughed, and I left it at that. I wonder, though, what she would say had we continued the conversation. I am really curious why different people think others "should" listen to them.

Two days later I had a conversation with someone whose parents are from Samoa. She told me that in the Samoan culture you are taught to "respect your elders." She said at the dinner table young people usually don't talk; only the "elders" talk, and young people are expected to listen quietly without making a contribution to the discussion. She said she was never asked her opinion about anything and her feelings were not considered important to her parents. She said it is a primitive society. She also said women are not treated with respect there, and for those reasons she would not want to raise her children in a place like that. Talking to her helped me understand why some people think others "should" listen to them. It seems this is largely just custom, culture and tradition. I wonder what a society would be like if it were the cultural norm to listen to those people we commonly call children, teenagers and students.. and then take what they say seriously.

Later in the week, I saw how a primary school teacher used the word "listen." At the time, she was frustrated because she was getting behind in her lesson plan. She was also starting to feel out of control. She had just come back from gathering up two boys who did not return to the class after the lunch break bell had been rung. She was nearly dragging one, Abdul, by the hand, while lecturing to him most of the way. When she got back to class she tried to get 18 people, ages 5 and 6, to sit on the floor -- where she wanted and how she wanted -- in preparation for her reading a story about a father taking his son fishing. Her attempts at controlling these 18 people took her a lot of time and she was getting more and more stressed and further behind in her lesson plan. Then as she read she would stop frequently to give orders to the people on the floor. She would say things like, "Put that down." "Sit up properly." "Eyes up here." "Move over here by me." "Go sit in the back by yourself." "Don't walk through the group! I wanted you to walk around the outside!" After directing several such instructions towards Abdul, she snapped at him, saying, "Abdul, Stand up! You are not listening to me! The next time I have to speak to you, you are going to be sent out of the room. Do you understand that? Look at me! Do you understand that?!"

I think what she actually meant was that he was not obeying her by sitting quietly and motionless, with his eyes on her while she tried to read the story. I could understand why Abdul was not looking at her because the story was not interesting to him. She tried to make it more interesting by exaggerating her voice as she read, but I think this might have only made it more obvious to him and others that the story was not very important or relevant to them in its own right. As I looked around the room in fact, I would say only about half the people were interested in the story, which explained why so many of them were looking elsewhere and finding other things to do.

During the story telling, I noticed something else. There was a boy named Jesse who the teacher said was "ADHD." The way she said it was as if she were branding him for life as a problem child. I paid close attention to Jesse and we immediately connected. I saw myself in him and have little doubt that if I were in school now I would also be labeled as "ADHD". One of the most fascinating things I witnessed while watching Jesse was when the teacher asked, "Have any of you gone fishing with your fathers?" At this point Jesse looked like he was not paying any attention at all. He had been crawling all around, not keeping his eyes on the teacher for more than a few seconds after each time she commanded him to. But when she asked the question, "Have any of you gone fishing with your fathers?", Jesse was one of the first, if not the very first, to shoot up his hand and say, "I have." His ability to listen when not appearing to -- what I might call his multi-tasking ability -- was shown again when she was handing out writing books. At this point Jesse was literally crawling under one of the tables, but as soon as he heard his name called, he came out and went to get his book.

Another example of how someone used the word "listen" was just last night. I was talking to an 18 year old from Holland here at the Villa Backpackers (one of my favorites!). She was considering studying psychology. She said there are some students who "won't listen" to the teachers when the teacher tells them to be quiet.

All of this made me realize there is a difference between listening and obeying. As with the difference between respect and obedience, however, one is often used mistakenly in place of the other. I suppose this is because people like teachers and psychology students don't want to admit that they really just want someone to obey them. I may be guilty of this myself, so I will try to be more aware of this important distinction!

As "adults" we tend to use the word "listen" differently depending on the situation. When we truly want someone to listen to us, rather than obey us -- and this person is someone we consider an equal, a friend or someone we are seeking help from -- we often mean we want them to listen in a caring way without judging us or telling us what to do, much as is described in this site.

This strikes me as very ironic. A person who sees themselves as some kind of authority figure wants to tell other people what to do. But at the same time, if they really want someone to listen to them, they probably don't want that person to tell them what to do! They just want to be listened to. Beyond this they probably would like to feel understood and empathized with. We don't usually feel any of these things when someone expects just to just obey them.

I can just imagine a police chief, an army officer or a high school principal going into a therapist and the therapist saying, "I told you what to do last week, didn't I? And you didn't listen, did you? Look at me when I am talking to you!" The client then says "But I am paying you to listen to me, not to tell me what to do! No one ever listens to me, even when I pay them to!!"

S. Hein
May 2003

No Quiero Pollo - I don't want chicken

A couple of weeks ago I was at a friend's house in Peru. I was getting ready to start on a 3 hour trip. They wanted me to eat something first, but I didn't want to eat before I left. They kept insisting, as nearly everyone here seems to do, and I kept saying I didn't want to eat. Then they offered to give me some food to take with me. I said okay to this and then they started telling me they would give me rice and chicken. I told them I didn't want chicken, just rice and beans. Then they kept insisting I take some chicken with me. I kept saying "no thank you, rice is enough" and everything else I could think of to try to get them to stop pressuring me. Eventually, my friend said to his wife, "Give him some chicken." At that point I said very loudly., "NO QUIERO POLLO!", which means "I DON"T WANT CHICKEN!"

I said it with just enough of a smile so they laughed and finally got the message. But now that I think about it I almost want to cry. It is so hard here to get anyone to listen to me, understand me, respect me and accept me. I have never been in a country where they are such poor listeners. Nor have I ever been in a country where I have heard as many people shout "Eschucha!", which means "Listen!" They have to shout "escucha" because no one listens to them. Their parents don't listen, their teachers don't listen, their older brothers and sisters don't listen, their uncles and aunts and grandparents don't listen. Instead, everyone is shouting instructions and commands and orders. Come. Sit down. Eat. Take this. Run. Hurry up. (Ven. Sientate. Come. Toma.Corre. Apurate.)

The people here remind me of my cousins in New York. When I used to go to their house they would also order me around and not listen to what I want. And, like nearly everyone in Peru, they are products of the Catholic religion.

As I write this I wonder if would be possible to do a study to find out what religion produces the worst listeners in the world. I have little doubt the Catholics would be high on the list. If anyone has ever heard of such a study, please let me know. (Related story)

Steve Hein
Tembladera, Peru
December 8, 2004

I don't want tea

(This story is related to the story about my friend trying to insist I eat chicken when I didn't want to.)


Is it just a coincidence that when I visited my friend's sister's house, she also didn't respect what I told her she was serving breakfast one day? She had asked me if I wanted hot chocolate. I told her I like water with a little sugar, nothing more. She then insisted that I have some tea. I said I didn't want tea, just water and sugar. But she walked away, went to the store nearby and bought some tea and brought it to me. She put a tea bag next to my cup and there it remained since I was not going to use it. I feel sad when I think about how hard it is to find someone who respects such simple things as whether I want tea or not. But I feel more sad when I think about how few children or teenagers have parents who respect or even take into consideration what they want either.

Steve Hein
December 8, 2004

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