You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy review – a modern epidemic of self-absorbed talk

Restaurants are noisy, social media connections are shallow, giving a TED talk is living the dream. What happened to conversation?

In 2005 I sat opposite someone at a dinner party who spent much of the evening looking at her phone under the table, sending messages and smiling to herself. I was amazed by her rudeness. A month or so later, I sat near the Indian politician Rahul Gandhi in a restaurant. He was with a glamorous woman but they weren’t speaking; instead they spent the whole evening looking at their phones. I found their behaviour fascinating and peculiar. Fifteen years later, the preference for phones over humans no longer seems in the least remarkable.

This is among the subjects Kate Murphy analyses in You’re Not Listening. She sets out the problem in painstaking, depressing detail. “At cafes, restaurants and family dinner tables, rather than talking to one another, people look at their phones. Or if they are talking to one another, the phone is on the table as ifa part of the place setting, taken up at intervals as casually as a knife or fork, implicitly signalling that the present company is not sufficiently engaging.” There was a time when, during idle or anxious moments, people reached for a cigarette, she writes. Now “people just as reflexively reach for their phones. Like smokers and cigarettes, people get jittery without their phones.”

Does this matter? Murphy argues that it does, profoundly, and draws together a barrage of statistics and research to persuade us that we have unthinkingly descended into a dystopian reality. Over the past century, she asserts, the average amount of time people have devoted to listening to one another during their waking hours has gone down by almost half, from 42% to 24%. In a 2018 survey of 20,000 Americans, almost half said they did not have meaningful in-person social interactions; meanwhile American life expectancy is declining due to suicide, opioid addiction, alcoholism and other so-called diseases of distress often associated with loneliness. Feeling lonely affects your health as much as being an alcoholic or smoking 14 cigarettes a day, she notes. Thirteen-year-olds who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of clinical depression by 27% and are 56% more likely to say they are unhappy than their peers who spend less time on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. A study conducted by Microsoft found that since the year 2000, the average attention span dropped from 12 to eight seconds.

The dubious precision of much of this research is slightly irritating and makes you question the methodology, but clearly something has changed, and no one can really dispute the argument that our affection for our phones is eating into the time that we might previously have spent listening to the people to whom we are closest. Murphy’s descriptions of modern life are acute. “If anyone tells a story longer than 30 seconds, heads bow not in contemplation but to read texts, check sports scores or see what’s trending online.” Even toddlers understand this, she points out, describing a friend’s child who has repeatedly thrown his parents’ mobiles into the toilet. “No other objects, just the cell phones. He knows precisely what keeps Mom and Dad from listening to him.”

Some shops have noise levels of 90 decibels.
Some shops have noise levels of 90 decibels. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

And it’s not just mobile phones that are damaging our capacity to listen, she argues, but a culture of “aggressive personal marketing” where “to be silent is to fall behind. To listen is to miss an opportunity to advance your brand and make your mark … Listening is often regarded as talking’s meek counterpart,” she writes. “Value is placed on what you project, not what you absorb ... The very image of success and power today is someone miked up and prowling around a stage or orating from behind a podium. Giving a TED talk ... is living the dream.” We are wrong to downplay the importance of listening, she argues, reminding us that the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus said: “Nature has given men one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.” Evolution gave us eyelids so we can close our eyes but no corresponding structure to close off our ears, she adds, suggesting listening is essential to our survival.

In any case, the world has become so noisy that listening is increasingly a physical challenge; sound levels now average 80 decibels at restaurants in the US (while a typical conversation averages about 60 decibels); stores such as H&M and Zara have noise levels up to 90 decibels. The World Health Organisation has discovered that teenagers’ near chronic headphone abuse is ruining their hearing, with 1.1 billion young people at risk of hearing loss; Murphy describes them as “generation deaf”.

She promises solutions, and the blurb on the back cover declares confidently: “This book will transform your conversations, your relationships and your life.” That is going a little far. Having finished the book a couple of weeks ago, I’d say my life and relationships remain resolutely untransformed. It was page 150 before I found some possibly useful practical advice. When your child comes home from school, Murphy recommends avoiding the customary stream of rapid-fire questions: “How was school?” “Have you eaten?” “Do you have homework?” Instead she suggests, you should favour curious questions: “What did you learn today?” or “What was the best part and what was the worst part of your day?” This seems sensible, as does her guidance on what to say when a friend tells you they’ve been sacked. You shouldn’t suggest you know how they feel, or tell them what to do about the problem or try to minimise their concerns. Instead, you should ask open and honest questions to communicate: “I’m interested in hearing more.” “If you jump in to fix, advise, correct or distract, you are communicating that the other person doesn’t have the ability to handle the situation.”

There is also sage advice on how and when to listen to our internal monologues. I laughed at Murphy’s characterisation of a self-critical friend’s mean inner voice as “Spanky”. She advises her friend to stop listening to Spanky when it “pipes up during times of stress, mercilessly chastising her and making her feel small”.

Although this book’s promise of life-changing content didn’t quite materialise for me, Murphy has correctly identified a problem. We like to think social media has broadened our horizons, giving us access to voices we would never previously have heard, but the way we engage with these voices is very superficial. “It’s hard to concentrate on the real world when you’re preoccupied with the virtual one,” she writes, arguing in passing that journalists’ fondness for picking out and quoting Twitter and Facebook posts, “rather than going out and getting quotes that come from actual people’s mouths”, may partly explain the media’s failure to anticipate Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote.

This isn’t a neo-Luddite manifesto, urging us to wean ourselves decisively off our phones, but it is a useful reminder that happiness often lies elsewhere. “Technology does not so much interfere with listening as make it seem unnecessary,” she writes, encapsulating this very modern predicament. “Our devices indulge our fear of intimacy by fooling us into thinking that we are socially connected even when we are achingly alone.”

You’re Not Listening is published by Harvill Secker (RRP £16.99). To buy a copy go to guardianbookshop,com. Free UK p&p over £15.


Amelia Gentleman

The GuardianTramp

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