How I Learned to Shut Up and Listen

Eileen Smith from Bearshapedsphere.
Huanchaco, Peru

Watching the sun go down in Huanchaco, Peru. Photo taken by Marlis Seelos.

I sat at a table of no fewer than fifteen people on the street Pio Nono, entry to Bellavista, the down-home party section of Santiago, Chile. I’d been invited to go out for a beer after the monthly critical mass bike ride, and we stacked our bikes tidily (handlebars to rear wheel) against a nearby tree and set to the matter at hand. We sat at a long series of card tables extending down the street, each of us perched on one of those ubiquitous white plastic chairs, serving ourselves beer into small glasses from the liter bottles of Escudo on the center of the tables. Some, drinkers of fan-schop (a Chilean specialty), mixed theirs with Fanta. I drank mine plain, and listened.

I spoke, and people understood. At the time, I felt that this was the only necessary linguistic accomplishment. You, listen to me.

I arrived to Chile in 2004, with way more than a passing knowledge of Spanish. Between high school and a couple of travel and study stints in the mundo hispanohablante (Spanish-speaking world), I could express myself fairly well, if not cleverly. Hadn’t I explained the electoral college to a group of teachers in Antigua, Guatemala in the 90s? Wasn’t it me who grabbed other travelers by the hand to take them to the post office, the bus station, to get their hair cut? I enjoyed helping, expressing, being in charge. I could get you a seat on the bus, a doorstop, tape to fix a book – you name it. I could ask for it directly or circumlocute it. I spoke, and people understood. At the time, I felt that this was the only necessary linguistic accomplishment. You, listen to me. And then it was over.

While output was the feather in my linguistic cap, my listening wouldn’t have won any awards. Still, I was skilled enough (or so I thought). Ask a predictable question while travelling, and get a predictable answer. “Where” questions should lead to a location. “When” questions should yield a time, or a day. “I don’t know” might come up at any time, so be prepared. Other times you might get a “probably,” or “No, we’re out of that (on the menu), what about this?” These little sayings are repetitive, predictable, often accompanied by hand and head motions, and occasional pointing. Understandable.

But what happens when you get out of the predictable, and put fifteen of your new closest friends on a loud sidewalk, add an unfamilliar accent, country-specific slang and not just a touch of cheap beer? As an ESL teacher I’d seen students reduced to frustration, to squinching their eyes shut against visual input while they leaned their heads closer to the audio, hoping that the problem wasn’t their ear for English, but their hearing. Try as I might there on the sidewalk, no matter of eye squinching or head leaning was going to fix the fact that I was simply not up to the task. My Chilean friends could understand me, but of the reading/writing/listening/speaking quadrifecta that make up second-language learning, clearly my listening was the weakest.

I’m loquacious at the best of times, grate-on-your-nerves chatty when it’s worse. But here, on the street in Santiago, 5,000 miles from a place where I could understand easily (and foolishly had taken this for granted), I was relegated to good listener status. It wasn’t that I couldn’t exactly understand what anyone was saying. I could understand enough to follow, kind of, but not fast enough to say anything relevant to the conversation while the topic was still hot.

I was also in Chile, which, with the exception of not letting people off the metro before getting on, is one of the most polite places I’d ever been. What this means is that any time I so much as appeared to want to say anything, a hush would fall over the string of tables. People knew they might not understand me easily, so they wanted to give me their complete attention.

The less I spoke, the more people felt I was being sweet, lovely, an observer, a listener. And whenever I did speak, I was no longer the boy who cried wolf.

Between the hot topic issue and the plancha (embarassment) I felt at having all eyes on me, the venerable communicator, I simply had to take a different tact. No longer was I Eileen, wordsmith extraordinaire. I was Aylín, the good listener. I was polite. It was cute. People described me as quiet.

And for a while I rebelled, thinking, no! I’m a whirlwind of communication. But what I learned here was that the less I spoke, the more people felt I was being sweet, lovely, an observer, a listener. And whenever I did speak, I was no longer the boy who cried wolf. I was a woman of few words. And I spent several months as a good listener because I simply couldn’t keep up well enough to speak. During downtimes in the conversation, I would mull over a conversation a Honduran woman had with me on the bus years ago, all communion and priest, mass and confession, a jumble of nouns held together with words (verbs? adjectives? who knows) that meant nothing to me. “Did you understand?” she asked. “Church,” I’d replied.

Not being able to participate in a conversation is like being in disguise. I would sit there in my shy suit and let the words whirl around me, swirl past me. For the first time in my life I was getting to know the patient people, the ones that reach out to quiet ones. I’d never met them before because I was so busy with my soundtrack. It made people want to take me into their confidence, their inner circle. I was not a person who repeated private information. As far as they could tell, I didn’t even speak.

After several months of more listening than speaking, I took it up as a new challenge: To follow every conversation with surgical precision, and say nothing, or nearly nothing. I could feel the cloud of wonder and panic lifting, and still I chose to stay quiet. I learned about body language and turn-taking, Chilean social niceties, and watched the other quiet people to see what they were doing. Following along as well, in most cases. They weren’t bland, just quiet. It was a revelation. Church indeed. The church of shut up and listen. And I was a convert.

Nearly five years later, I don’t have to just listen any more. I can exchange jokes and fling around slang with abandon. But what I’ve found is that I often don’t want to. I’m often happy to let events take place without interrupting them, just listening to people say what they have to, what they want to. I don’t interrupt as much and I’ve discovered this whole new world, even among my very own family, the self-professed masters of interrupting and simultaneous yammering (I blame Brooklyn). Sometimes I just try to let them talk themselves out before chiming in. Because when people are talking, they tend not be great listeners. I’d rather have their attention before saying something.

I’m often told I’ve changed quite a bit since being in Chile. Years have passed, and in that time we’ve all changed. But what I learned here is that you don’t have to be on your game at every possible second. You can watch from the sidelines and participate at the same time. Sometimes the story we tell when we’re not saying a word is the most important story of all.

About the author:

Eileen Smith is living the expat life in Santiago, Chile. Her blog, Bearshapedsphere, is a collection of day-to-day observations, infused with her bright, sometimes snarky, writing style.

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Discussion »

  • #1Steven Roll

    Your post will help me to enjoy the journey of learning a language more. It sounds like the final “destination” of being able to tell people stuff in another language is useful, but not as fulfilling as it seems. Listening, on the other hand, is an underrated skill in any language–including my native one.

  • #2Still Life in Buenos Aires

    Beautifully written.

    I share many of your feelings at year one. :-) But I’m usually the quiet “sweet” one at gatherings. haha.

  • #3edj

    Ah…how I could relate to this post! I’m still at the “intense listening” stage.
    It’s funny how people interpret our personalities according to our language liabilities. I had a friend who thought I was a quiet person, not to mention a good listener, and then she joined my ESL class and was surprised at how animated and energetic I was.

  • #4Nik

    Very well written Eileen, and I totally agree as well! Especially with this line: I’m often happy to let events take place without interrupting them, just listening to people say what they have to, what they want to.

  • #5Fly Girl

    I totally identify, Eileen. Language is so much a part of your personality, especially for professional communicators. It’s funny how a fast-talking Brooklynite can transform into an introspective listeners in a different environment. Although I never got the impression that you were all that quiet from your blog!

  • #6Costa Rica Surfing

    I love the self-imposed shyness I feel while learning Spanish. I find it allows me to spend more time in silence with others.

    I’ve always wanted to travel to Chile for a surf trip. I hear there are great waves, but the waters a bit cold. I noticed that the photo of the article was taken in Huanchaco, Peru, where the fishermen have been surfing the waves with reed boats for thousands of years.

  • #7Kkirb

    Big difference between speaking and communicating. Somehow, learning a new language points this out. Learning Portuguese in Brazil at 40 took me for a ride on the steepest learning curve since tying a shoe and riding a bike. I remember the very first full conversation. I had changed sides of the gas pump to fill my rental car after discovering the gas cap was on the other side – Me: “It’s a rental. I never know which side.” Him: “Now you know.” I was thrilled.
    Along with food, history, politics, race and gender attitudes, there’s no way to truly know a place without at least exploring the language. Mastery not likely necessary.

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