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.

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