Listening and communicative space

by Terence MacNamee

Listening is a cultural act. It is culturally coded. By that I mean that different cultures, different societies throughout the world, listen in different ways. This may mean that the whole emphasis of communication in one society may be different from what it is in another.

In many cultures, you will notice that a person merges into the woodwork, as it were, when they meet other people. Two people meeting for the first time may not say very much to one another or interact at a very intense level, because they are feeling each other out, getting to know one another, taking in one another’s cues at leisure. This pattern of behaviour is expected, and neither party feels embarrassed, much less compelled to start talking nine to the dozen. It is the pattern of behaviour in many parts of Asia.

North American society is quite different, of course. This culture teaches self-presentation. The key to social and business success is to present yourself in a favourable manner to everyone you meet, as soon as you meet.

To put it another way, people in this culture occupy space. Communicative “space” is an intuitive notion. It means the amount of the interaction between two people that is taken up by one or the other of them. When one speaks and the other listens, the speaker usually occupies a lot of space and the listener makes space for him or her.

Now, it is not hard to see that the requirement for self-presentation may end up being inimical to listening. If you are completely absorbed in presenting yourself to the other fellow, you jump in and occupy space. The other fellow has little space left to manoeuvre in. Occupying space becomes a habit for many of us, unfortunately. We may no longer know the art – because it can be an art – of making space for another so that he or she can present themselves. We compete with others for attention, and so we compete with them for space instead of sharing it as we might.