You Never Listen
If your family seems not to hear a word you say, you’re not alone. Social science researchers will tell you that the tendency to mentally tune-out the people closest to us is a phenomenon known as “closeness-communication bias.”
The tendency stems from a family member’s confidence that they can anticipate what you’re going to say before you say it. And since any reader of a Jewish publication is probably somehow related to me, you likely know what I’m going to say next:
“Closeness-communication bias” is a nice fancy phrase, but “Jewish” sums it up more succinctly.
How many times has your uncle repeated the same story during Passover? How many times has your mother asked you the same, embarrassing question at a wedding? How many times have you heard the mohel with the long beard make the joke that “the sixth circumcision is free?”
By organizing our lives around predictable lifecycle events, we’ve inadvertently created a soundtrack of conversations that play on infinite loop. What we’ve also done, however, is made it impossible to actually hear one another.
What else did your uncle say at Passover? What is it your mom is getting at with all that repetitive questioning? And (super curious about this) is the sixth circumcision really free? We’ll likely never know because we skip right past what is being said as we elbow our way to the deli platter.
A recent article about closeness-communication bias points out that familiarity doesn’t breed contempt as much as it does complacency. We think we know what to expect, so we don’t even listen for the unexpected. In the non-Jewish world, this is a recipe for great disruptions – dissolved friendships, divorces, estrangement from children.
In the Jewish world, I suspect it leads to loneliness. If you’re smushed in between relatives around a festival table and think that no one ever listens to what you have to say, you’re likely to feel simultaneously crowded and completely alone.
Researchers explain that some of us find an outlet for this loneliness by talking to strangers. Therapists, sure, but scientists say that even the person in line at the DMV will do. It’s easier to confide in a stranger than in a friend because strangers listen to us more completely and find us more interesting.
But does that still hold true if both strangers are Jewish? I doubt it. The first thing any of us do when we meet a fellow “-stein,” “-rosen,” or “-berg,” is play “Jewish geography.” Answers to “Where did you grow up? Where did your family belong? What summer camp did you go to?” paint a picture for us of this “new” person that is often so detailed we mistake it for complete.
So, you’re a Camp Ramah of Ojai kid who grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1980s and went to Brandeis? Say no more.
But we want to say more, don’t we? And we want to be heard when we say it. While closeness-communication bias is widespread, experts (none of whom seem to be -steins, -rosens, or -bergs, incidentally) are optimistic that we can educate ourselves past it.
They offer tips to help us listen with more intention and inspire our families to hear us in return. They advise:
• Ask your loved ones about their day and then really listen.
• Don’t judge.
• Don’t interrupt.
• Don’t offer unsolicited advice.
When that fails, I’ll meet you at the deli platter. You can tell me all about it. Or whatever.
Mayrav Saar routinely ignores her children and husband in Los Angeles.