Listening in the Classroom

Here is a brief item that will appear as a Listen to This box in the new edition of Essentials of Human Communication. This little piece is an attempt to raise the question of listening in the classroom, rather than to provide an exhaustive list of dos and don'ts.

It is the privilege of wisdom to listen.
Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894), American professor and poet.

Right now, a large part of your listening will take place in the classroom-listening to the instructor and to other students. In addition to following the general guidelines for listening, here are a few additional suggestions for making your classroom listening more effective.
1. Prepare yourself to listen. Sit up front where you can see your instructor and any visual aids clearly and comfortably. Remember that you listen with your eyes as well as your ears.
2. Avoid distractions caused by mental daydreaming as well as physical distractions like your laptop, iPhone, or newspaper.
3. Pay special attention to the introduction of the lecture; this will often contain an orientation and will help you outline the lecture. Listen for orienting remarks and for key words and phrases (often written on the board or on PowerPoint slides) such as “another reason,” “three major causes,” and “first.” These will often cue you into the outline the instructor is following.
4. Take notes in outline form. Avoid writing in paragraph form. Listen for headings and then use these as major headings in your outline. When the instructor says, for example, “there are four kinds of noise,” you have your heading and you will have a numbered list of 4 kinds of noise.
5. Assume what is said is relevant. It may eventually prove irrelevant (unfortunately) but if you listen with the assumption of irrelevancy, you’ll never hear anything relevant.
6. Listen for understanding; avoid taking issue with what is said until you understand fully and then, of course, take issue if you wish. But, generally, don’t rehearse in your own mind your arguments against, say, a particular position. When you do this, you run the risk of missing additional explanation or qualification.

Listening and Politeness

Here is a brief section on politeness which will appear in the listening chapter in the next edition of Interpersonal Messages

Listening and Politeness

Politeness is often thought of as the exclusive function of the speaker, as solely an encoding or sending function. But, politeness (or impoliteness) may also be signaled through listening (Fukushima, 2004).
Of course, there are times when you would not want to listen politely (for example, if someone is being verbally abusive or condescending or using racist or sexist language). In these cases you might want to show your disapproval by showing that you’re not even listening. But most often you’ll want to listen politely and you’ll want to express this politeness through your listening behavior. Here are a few suggestions for demonstrating that you are in fact listening politely. As you read these you’ll notice that these are strategies designed to be supportive of the speaker’s positive and negative face needs:
• Avoid interrupting the speaker. Avoid trying to take over the speaker’s turn. Avoid changing the topic. If you must say something in response to something the speaker said and can’t wait until he or she finishes, then say it as briefly as possible and pass the speaker’s turn back to the speaker.
• Give supportive listening cues. These might include nodding your head, giving minimal verbal responses such as “I see” or “yes, it’s true”, or moving closer to the speaker. Listen in a way that demonstrates that what the speaker is saying is important. In some cultures, polite listening cues must be cues of agreement (Japanese culture is often used as an example); in other cultures, polite listening cues are attentiveness and support rather that cues of agreement (much of United States culture is an example).
• Show empathy with the speaker. Demonstrate that you understand and feel the speaker’s thoughts and feelings by giving responses that show this level of understanding—smiling or cringing or otherwise echoing the feelings of the speaker. If you echo the speaker’s nonverbal expressions, your behavior is likely to be seen as empathic.
• Maintain eye contact. In much of the United States this is perhaps the single most important rule. If you don’t maintain eye contact when someone is talking to you, then you’ll appear to be not listening and definitely not listening politely. This rule, however, does not hold in all cultures. In some Latin and Asian cultures, polite listening would consist of looking down and avoiding direct eye contact when, for example, listening to a superior or much older person.
• Give positive feedback. Throughout the listening encounter and perhaps especially after the speaker’s turn (when you continue the conversation as you respond to what the speaker has said), positive feedback will be seen as polite and negative feedback as impolite. If you must give negative feedback, then do so in a way that does not attack the person’s negative face, for example, first mention areas of agreement or what you liked about what the person said and stress your good intentions. And, most important, do it in private. Public criticism is especially threatening and will surely be seen as a personal attack.

A somewhat different slant on politeness and listening can be seen in “forcing” people to listen when they don’t want to. Generally, the polite advice is to be sensitive to when the other person wants to leave and to stop asking the person to continue listening. And, closely related to this, is the “forced” listening that many cell phone users impose on others. Here are a few guidelines, necessary largely because much cell phone usage occurs in a public space and in effect forces people to listen to conversations they have nothing to do with:
• Avoid using cell phones where inappropriate, for example, restaurants, hospitals, theatres, museums, a commuter bus or train, and the classroom. If you must make or take a call when in these various situations, try to move to a less public area.
• Put your phone on vibrate mode or let your voicemail answer and take a message when your call might interfere with others as it would in the classroom, for example.
• When you can’t avoid taking a call, speak as quietly as possible and as briefly as possible.
• Don’t take pictures of people who aren’t posing for you and erase photos if the person you photographed requests it. Of course, if there’s an accident or a robbery, you may want to photograph the events.
• Avoid extended talking when your reception is weak. Walking along a crowded street while talking on your cell is likely to result in poor reception, which is annoying to the other person and generally impolite.
• Because cell phones are always with us, it’s easy to assume that when we have nothing better to do, that the person we’re calling also has nothing better to do. As with any phone call, it’s wise to ask if this is a good time to call—a strategy that helps maintain the autonomy (negative face) of the person you’re calling.


Judge England has ruled that the names of donors to California's homophobic Proposition 8 be made public. And why shouldn't they be made public? The argument against this disclosure seems to be that these people and their businesses might be boycotted or discriminated against by those they discriminated against. So, if I read this correctly, these homophobes want to discriminate against GLBTQ people and deny GLBTQ people civil rights but they want to do it in secret--with white hoods, perhaps. They want to discriminate against but they don't want to be discriminated against. Seems a bit unfair but also seems pretty typical of those who would discriminate against instead of discriminating between.
The classroom applications of this are many, it seems: owning one's thoughts, freedom of information, ethics, indiscrimination, institutionalized homophobia, cultural prejudice, media bias in reporting, cultural differences concerning interpersonal relationships, and probably a lot more.


Deception Detection

If you’re teaching or studying nonverbal communication and you haven’t yet seen Lie to Me, the new Fox show, take a look. The heroes (Tim Roth and Kelli Williams)are essentially nonverbal communication experts specializing in deception detection (actually, they say the Dr. Cal role is based on Paul Ekman). Here’s how the Fox website describes the show:

When you itch your chin, wring your hands, scratch your nose or increase your swallowing, DR. CAL LEIGHTMAN knows you're lying. And he doesn't just think so - he knows so. Whether it be family, friends or complete strangers - he knows when they're holding something back. More accurate than any polygraph test, he is a human lie detector.

This would be a great show to use along with any of the books in nonverbal communication, especially perhaps, Mark Knapp's Lying and Deception in Human Interaction or Paul Ekman's Telling Lies. There are also a lot of articles on the web that talk about this series and about lie detection.


Politeness Strategies

This brief section on politeness strategies is scheduled to appear in the next edition of Interpersonal Messages in the chapter on the self and perception and is presented as one of a series of strategies for impression management, specifically strategies to be liked.

We can view politeness strategies, which are often used to make ourselves appear likeable, in terms of negative and positive types (Goffman, 1967; Brown & Levinson, 1987; Holmes 1995; Goldsmith, 2007). Both of these types of politeness are responsive to two needs that we each have:
(1) positive face--the desire to be viewed positively by others, to be thought of favorably, and
(2) negative face--the desire to be autonomous, to have the right to do as we wish.
Politeness in interpersonal communication, then, refers to behavior that allows others to maintain both positive and negative face and impoliteness refers to behaviors that attack either positive face (for example, you criticize someone) or negative face (for example, you make demands on someone).
To help another person maintain positive face, you speak respectfully to and about the person, you give the person your full attention, you say “excuse me” when appropriate. In short you treat the person as you would want to be treated. In this way you allow the person to maintain positive face through what is called positive politeness. You attack the person’s positive face when you speak disrespectfully about the person, ignore the person or the person’s comments, and fail to use the appropriate expressions of politeness such as thank you and please.
To help another person maintain negative face, you respect the person’s right to be autonomous and so you request rather than demand that they do something; you say, “Would you mind opening a window” rather than “Open that window, damn it!” You might also give the person an “out” when making a request, allowing the person to reject your request if that is what the person wants. And so you say, “If this is a bad time, please tell me, but I’m really strapped and could use a loan of $100” rather than “Loan me a $100” or “You have to lend me $100.” If you want a recommendation, you might say, “Would it be possible for you to write me a recommendation for graduate school” rather than “You have to write me a recommendation for graduate school.” In this way you enable the person to maintain negative face through what is called negative politeness.
Of course, we do this almost automatically and asking for a favor without any consideration for the person’s negative face needs would seems totally insensitive. In most situations, however, this type of attack on negative face often appears in more subtle forms. For example, your mother saying “Are you going to wear that?”—to use Deborah Tannen’s (2006) example—attacks negative face by criticizing or challenging your autonomy. This comment also attacks positive face by questioning your ability to dress properly.
As with all the strategies discussed here, politeness too may have negative consequences. Overpoliteness, for example, is likely to be seen as phony and is likely to be resented. Overpoliteness will also be resented if it’s seen as a persuasive strategy.


Politeness and Culture

These few paragraphs are designed to place politeness within the discussion of culture in communication.

The politeness principle is probably universal across all cultures (Brown & Levinson, 1987). Cultures differ, however, in how they define politeness and in how important politeness is in comparison with, say, openness or honesty. For example, not interrupting, saying “please” and “thank you,” maintaining a focused interaction with appropriate eye contact, and/or not criticizing someone in public are all examples of politeness messages but their importance differs from one culture to another.
Cultures also differ in their rules for expressing politeness or impoliteness. Some cultures, for example, may require you to give a long speech of praise when meeting, say, an important scientist or educator; other cultures expect you to assume a more equal position regardless of the stature of the other person. The varied forms of polite greetings provide excellent examples of the different ways different cultures signal politeness, cleverly signaled in the title of one popular guide to intercultural communication, Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: How to do Business in Sixty Countries (Morrison, Conaway, & Borden, 1994). Chinese and Japanese will greet you with bows. In Chile, Honduras, and many other Latin countries women may pat each other on the arm or shoulder. In the Czech Republic men may kiss a woman’s hand. In many Latin and Mediterranean cultures the polite greeting is to hug, a type of greeting that is gaining in popularity throughout the United States. And in many of course the proper greeting is the handshake but even this varies. For example, in the United States and Canada, the handshake is firm and short (lasting about 3 to 4 seconds) but it’s soft (resembling a handclasp) and long (lasting about 10 to 12 seconds) in Indonesia (Morrison, Conaway, & Borden, 1994). For more on the handshake, see Chapter 8, pp. 000-000.
And, of course, cultures differ in the punishments they mete out for politeness violations. Asian cultures, especially Chinese and Japanese, are often singled out because they emphasize politeness more and mete out harsher punishments for violations than would people in the United States or in Western Europe (Fraser, 1990, Mao, 1994; Strecker, 1993).
There also are large gender differences (as well as similarities) in the expression of politeness (Holmes, 1995). Generally, studies from several different cultures show that women use more polite forms than men (Brown, 1980; Wetzel, 1988; Holmes, 1995). Both in informal conversation and in conflict situations, women tend to seek areas of agreement more than do men. Young girls are more apt to try to modify expressions of disagreement, whereas young boys are more apt to express more “bald disagreements” (Holmes, 1995). There are also similarities. For example, both men and women in the United States and New Zealand seem to pay compliments in similar ways (Manes & Wolfson, 1981; Holmes, 1986, 1995), and both men and women use politeness strategies when communicating bad news in an organization (Lee, 1993).


Politeness and Competence

In revising my Interpersonal Messages text for the 2nd edition, I'm integrating politeness as a basic theme of effective interpersonal communication. And so, I thought I'd post the various sections each week for those who also see politeness as a crucial interpersonal skill. I'd sure be interested in your reactions to these inclusions--positive or negative.

This first brief section is from Chapter 1 and simply places politeness as an essential ingredient of interpersonal competence.

Competence and Politeness

Politeness may be defined as civility, courteousness, refinement, respect, and consideration for others. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once noted that “politeness is to human nature what warmth is to wax.” When you engage in polite interaction, you follow the rules for accepted interpersonal interaction and adhere to the social standards of behavior. It is the opposite of rudeness or dissing (a word coined from disrespect). Politeness will not guarantee your interpersonal effectiveness, but impoliteness is likely to guarantee ineffectiveness. Consequently, it’s necessary to understand the rules for politeness in a wide variety of interpersonal situations.
Because of the importance of politeness to all forms of interpersonal communication, it is covered in each chapter where we discuss, for example, politeness at work, nonverbal politeness, relationship politeness, and politeness in conflict management. Understanding and mastering the rules of politeness will enable you to present yourself positively, comfortably, and in control. It will enable you to make a more effective first impression, which, as you’ll see later (Chapter 3, pp. xx-xx), influences your future interactions and is highly resistant to change.



A modest discussion starter: How do you know how to greet someone? What cues does a person use to choose the appropriate greeting? Relevant to this is a little snapshot in USAToday (January 8, 2009) on kissing as a form of greeting. Men and women differ considerably. Thirty-two percent of men will kiss only the immediate family while 41% of women kiss only the immediate family. Twenty-six percent of the men would kiss very close friends (which seems very high to this greeting watcher) while 36% of the women would. As to the percentage of men and women who would kiss only a member of the opposite sex: 33% of men and only 5% of women. And, of course, the inevitable question: Why these sex differences?