I’m sitting at my desk this morning, listening. I can hear random neighbors heading off to work, the occasional airplane and the birds. If I’m able to be still enough, sometimes my brain will try and decipher what the birds are up to, which ones are responding to each other, which ones are sounding a warning; there must be some logic at play.
Trying to listen to birds reminds me of the first few months that I lived in Europe as a young graduate student. I didn’t speak the language, and I remember listening to the people then the way I am listening to the birds this morning. It was both disconcerting and peaceful; what if people are talking about something I should know, some danger, but it also allowed my mind the freedom of not being distracted by the words of others.
I know people that “hear” in these ways all the time. Some people can’t seem to help but be engaged by other people’s conversations. I used to have lunch occasionally with a friend who always brought the conversations of the other tables to ours. “See that guy with the plaid shirt, he’s trying to convince his wife that he hasn’t been unfaithful…” He would spend the rest of our lunch sitting with me, but really listening to hear how things went over there.
Other people I know seem oblivious to the spoken words around them, they seem to have tunnel hearing, placing their complete attention on the words of whomever they are with. It’s nice, but can also be a little intimidating.
I think I’m somewhere in between, I like to think that I am attentive to the people I speak with, but I am in no way immune to nearby juicy chit-chat.
I think these things are habits, largely unlearned and unconscious. After my first four months of living in Belgium, a friend and I traveled to the UK to spend Christmas in Scotland. We travelled by train to Oostende, took the ferry across the Channel and made our way to King’s Cross for the night train north. The hustle of connections had kept me distracted, but once settled in for the long journey to Edinburgh I became oddly uncomfortable. It took some time before I understood why, but I realized it was the language – I could understand the conversations of everyone around me. More discomforting, …they could understand mine!
It was a shock to realize how muffled my ears had become, that I had become so accustomed to not knowing what was being said around me. I was even a bit fearful to speak without measuring what I was about to say. Somewhere in my mind I knew that most of the people back in Flanders spoke English, but my mind had become used to thinking that when I spoke to my friends, those around didn’t really understand.
Are you conscious of these things, or is this just another odd part of my character? However it is, I remain mindful of the volume of my voice and the proximity of other ears. No need to burden others with the detritus of my day, nor distract them from the people they should be listening to.
Now I have to get back to the birds, I think they may be up to something…