I’m in a Starbucks today, where I spent much of my time a few years ago doing college homework, finishing my degree. The degree has been obtained, I have a teaching job, and I’m now taking the morning off in order to have a mammogram and afterwards, sit in a Starbucks, neither doing nor giving homework.
Instead, I am just drinking my vanilla steamer listening to people. I am usually the source of mindless conversation, but this morning, I am more interested in the conversation at the table next to me. A young woman who speaks entirely too fast is sharing entirely too many details about her children with a woman who isn’t speaking at all. Frankly, I’m not sure they are even together. She may just be a blindsided coffee drinker roped into listening to this woman due to limited seating possibilities.
Apparently, this young woman has a child and her husband has a child, and they want to have a child together. They are also going on vacation in Louisiana in the spring, maybe to Florida at Christmas, but her daughter’s birthday is in January, and 100 (not a typo, people, one-hundred) guests will be at her birthday party. She and her husband are having financial problems. I’d like to interrupt and suggest that maybe two vacations, another kid, and a birthday bash might not be advisable in light of their income instability, but I just drink my cup of shut the hell up.
I have complained about the over-sharing of strangers in the past, and I instinctively want to complain now, but here’s the deal. Today, as I sit in this comfy chair (however note: I am discomforted by the idea that someone else has been comfy in this chair, possibly farting,) I am thinking about the way I listen to the voices in my life. Mammograms are good for that. I dislike waiting for anything, especially tests results that might tell me I have cancer. So in this time of waiting, I want to be less self-focused and more aware of things going on around me.
Like the businessman across from me who keeps smiling at me and trying to make small talk. (Nice try, but I’m very happily married.) Like the lady at the counter who is trying to figure out how she knows the lady behind her, and the lady behind her trying to ignore the lady trying to figure out how she knows her. The bearded dude at the table across the room who is looking at me like he knows I am blogging about him looking at me.
What happens to these stranger’s stories when no one is listening? If I stood up and left, would the proverbial tree in the forest not make a sound? When I leave this Starbucks, does it cease to exist? When I leave this earth, does my whole world, and those in it – from my husband and children to the over-sharer at the next table – cease to exist? Have I created them all, all of this, this earth, this life, for this existence? A little solipsism goes a long way on a Monday morning, especially after having my breasts sandwiched between metal plates. So philosophical meandering aside…
I truly am trying to become a better listener. I choose, today at least, to be the quiet woman at the next table, nodding politely and offering no opinion or advice. I see how my favorite people in the world – Gregg and my sister – use their skills as great listeners in order to acquire, process, and offer, and I am intrigued.
Another perk of being a good listener, instead of the talker, is that I don’t find myself saying something incredibly stupid just for the sake of talking. I am reminded of a Modern Family episode in which Phil says, “Look, I should probably just sit down and say nothing, but it’s too late. I am standing, and I’m obviously talking, and now you’re looking at me, and I feel the need to keep going.” Been there. Done that. Been asked to leave a bar for it.
Listening to the stories of strangers can be frustrating, causing me to feel as though I should say or do something to help them (“Set limits with your child, please.” “That career move will be a mistake.” “Break up with this asshole immediately.”) It can also be a good thing, restoring some faith in humanity. Listening to a man speak of his late wife with love in his voice, to a child tell her mother how pretty she is, to people being polite, saying “please” and “thank you”, not forgetting their P’s and Q’s – this is how I know the world isn’t all bad, and there are some things out there still worth listening to.
So go ahead, now. You talk. I’ll just listen.