Listening Impaired

As a child, I was well aware that vocabulary skills impressed my elders. I wasn’t charming, cute, or much given to math, but by God, I could comb the dictionary for cool words. I’d toss them out like magic tricks at a dinner table that included my parents, five little professorolder siblings, and the occasional stray graduate student (redundant term there) or visiting professor. When I got it right—the razzle-dazzle word at the perfect moment in the conversation—I had the attention of the entire table, if only for the length of one comment.

So I learned to trade in words, and I’m glad I did because we all need to play to our strengths.

dixie cup telephoneLanguage has two sides, however. The now-hear-this, listen-to-me side of the coin is expressive language. The other side of the coin, the one that separates the merely articulate from the effective communicator, is receptive language. Somebody with strong receptive language skills can make sense of what they hear or read and figure out what to do with it.

There’s a trap here, because people with strong expressive language skills can seem a lot smarter than they are. Real smarts are more than a megaphone for our internal monologue. Real smarts includes the ability to understand other people, and use what they’re telling you to solve problems and function in the world.

In other words, understanding the world through words and solving problems has little to do with a flashy vocabulary. (Duh.)

I see this dynamic at work in foster care cases, where I come across parents who strike blah, blah, blahme as on the ball, good advocates for their children, and able to express themselves convincingly in court. Quite often, these folks are not the ones to get their children back, at least not easily. They talk a good game, but they can’t process what they hear well at all. Their receptive language skills stink, and their analytical thinking abilities are not so hot either.

And yet, they come across as “smart.” The subtle cost of their expressive language abilities was that they are held responsible for a level of functioning they don’t have. I’ve met some lawyers who suffer the same deficit—their closing arguments are emphatic, lengthy, and convincingly rendered—and yet, they miss the mark when it comes to reading the judge or listening to their clients.

Think about the last time you felt irritated with somebody who was glib, well spoken, and never at a loss for words. Were they smart, or were they tap dancing loudly over an inability to understand what’s said to them, and how to apply it?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Amazon gift card.

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50 comments on “Listening Impaired

  1. I always find myself around people that think they know everything and try to speek with big words and have no idea what they even mean

    • Amber, how do you keep from laughing out loud? I recall a guy trying to charm me who kept talking about things being a “figmo” of his imagination. Worse than fingernails on a blackboard!

  2. Sometimes all people have are words. They use them to hide where they fall short. Like you said, the lengthy closing argument in court, but did they catch the cues, mood from the judge and jury to make it effective. It’s a mask. Words are used to mask them. (that’s my little philosophical rant for the night)

    • Nicole, I’m a word person, in the sense that they’re my briar patch. If it needs writing or saying, I’m your girl. And there are times when if it weren’t for the tree house of my verbal ability, the swamp of emotion and stress would have overwhelmed me. My difficulty is when there’s no swamp, there’s no stress, and I’m still up in my tree house, wording away.

      Sometimes, words fail. And then what, Miz Grace?

  3. I work with teenagers so I’m surrounded by people who “talk a good game” but don’t have clue as to what they’ve really saying. Many of the students do their best to persuade me to let them do what they want by using higher level vocabulary words. It’s usually some excuse to leave the classroom or get out of completing an assignment. They think that if they use these words, then their request will automatically be granted. It never works that way because they inevitably use the word incorrectly. I’ve had some good chuckles at some of the things they’ve said. Although I will say that I’m often surprised by the words that teenagers do use and use correctly. I had a 15 year male student use the phrase “a woman of loose morals” in class the other day. That made me laugh. I can’t say that I’d ever met a 15 year guy that even knew there was such a phrase as “a woman of loose morals.”

    • That dude has swain potential! Now if one of the girls would refer to “a man of loose morals.”

      One of the nicest moments in my parenting history was when my four-year-old daughter turned to me, hands on her skinny hips, lip curled, and admonished, “Don’t you talk backwards to me, Mommy.”

      She got the menacing-mommy attitude perfectly, but I couldn’t keep a straight face.

      • My four year old grandson says lasterday for yesterday. Which makes perfect sense, because it was the last day after all.

  4. I’ve mainly been around people who know what they’re talking about. Only two of my friends use “big words” as my peers would term it, but they’re both fairly good writers and orators that understandably, much of their vocabulary has become incorporated in daily life. Both of them are very smart also, so most of the time I would have to look up words just to know what they’re talking about. lol

    • Mary, do you think their math skills are as developed as their verbal skills? I’ve usually scored well on verbal skills tests, and not because I have to work at it much. To me, the math-smart people are the real brains. How do they DO that?

      • I was invited to participate in a psych study in college based on SAT scores; I was in the high verbal, low math group. I never found out what the study hoped to prove. However, thanks to the development of the personal computer, I grew up to be an accountant, using logic and machines that do the arithmetic. Words are still the recreational part of my life.

  5. Smooth talking salesmen come first to mind. They think if they use big words that you will assume they know what they are talking about but many times I find they know very little about what they’re trying to sell. And the more technical the product, it seems the worse it is lol

  6. When I taught middle school students, I would often be an expressive speaker, introducing new words as the lesson deemed appropriate. Rather than learning new words as a receptive listener would or ignoring the new words as some teens choose to do, I actually had one young man at the ripe age of 14-years accuse me and another teacher of making words up! I can only guess what nefarious plots he imagines when his high school teachers use an even more advanced vocabulary!

  7. Like Meat Loaf I usually have to sleep on it to understand some complicated conversation or events. Most of my life I’ve been a salesperson or worked in customer service..duh. My level of communication skills adapted to the one on one of the people surrounding me. Now smarts, I could have introduced you to some Blue Ridge Mountain family that could judge a person as quickly as that college professor. Sadly, most are gone now, just the hundred year old houses left. Maybe I’m a chameleon because I understand Hey and Girlfriend. I stay in the circle I’m comfortable. Blowing smoke, I suppose I don’t really have much time for anyone that keeps travelling that windy road. Street Smart, Mountain Smart, Book Smart all have there uses at given times. Ready for Nick, Grace.

    • Yeah, Peggy what you said–about mountain smart. A judge I miss very much used to occasionally set the rule book aside and announce, “We’re going to apply a little mountain law, here…” when the best interests of the child were not served by strict adherence to procedure.

      There’s knowing the rules, and then there’s wisdom.

  8. I once did get a fine for overtaking in a non overtaking zone. I was not very happy about it and the police officer who booked me did not withdraw as from his point of view I did overtake – which I didn’t by the way -. I went to a lawyer and we went to court but what this guy came up with was nowhere near what actually happened and I couldn’t do anything about it in court. When the judge asked me about my view and I was about to start to explain in length that no overtaking had happened he got pretty annoyed, I got away with a small fine but no demerit points in my record.
    So I assume that neither the lawyer nor the judge had perceptive speaking skills and yet they do nothing else but speak and listen all day.

    • Manuela, you have touched on a significant issue, at least for me. When one of these foster care clients comes along who’s a “megaphone mom,” and she appears much quicker on the uptake then she is, and she hooks up with a social worker who’s also more articulate than she is perceptive, and then an attorney gets into the mix with the same skill deficit…. not much problem-solving going to happen, though everybody will “participate” in a discussion.

      And then they get into the courtroom, where time is scarce, everybody’s nervous, and uniformed people are standing around with guns.

      Sometimes, it’s a wonder the system works at all, much less as well as it does.

  9. As a nurse who qualified in the seventies and as one who has no degree in nursing I find the newly qualified Nurses annoying when they try to tell me my job by using big words, but they don’t have a scrap of commonsense, compassion or on the job experience which IMHO makes a good Nurse.
    They think the degree makes them superior which it doesnt.

    • Jayne, I’d go one step further, and say that in many of the helping professions (medicine, law, social work, teaching), what it takes to get the initial qualification is NOT what it takes to do well in the professional environment. There’s a saying among law students:

      He who makes A’s become a law school professor.

      He who makes B’s becomes a judge.

      He who makes C’s becomes rich.

      Some truth to that, because he who makes C’s can have the better skills with clients, judges, juries, and other attorneys.

  10. Oh my gosh. You hit on a topic that has been on my mind and into thoughts for a considerable amount of time. I ask first your suggestion to learn and use more words and communicate better?

    Secondly , how to blow off the smoke of those that simply just blow smoke. Unfortunately I am stuck with a boss that thinks and speaks with such arrogant language that I find myself cringing . He doesn’t lack intelligence but he does give himself too much credit.

    Sigh, my answer is to look for another job and quick. It’s getting too hard to ignore the condescending words he spouts. And to add to this, the second person I work with cannot express what she needs worth a dang. I am frustrated because I am beginning to feel as if I lack intelligence which I sort of know is not true!

    Thanks Grace, awesome awesome topic.

    • Hope, Sorry the job isn’t easy. I wonder if the boss is so smart, or is he one of these people I run across in such numbers at the courthouse: He can give you a running commentary on what’s going on with him, what he thinks, what he wants to see happen, but he can’t process the incoming material well at all.

      The bewildering thing (to me) is that these people sound pretty sharp. Not until I look at whether they ca solve problems, or comprehend what’s said to them, do I get the sense the lights are on by nobody home (or the TV’s blaring).

  11. My husband is someone who has a large vocabulary and can talk anyone into a corner and convince them he is right even if he himself has now clue if he’s right! I always tell him he’d make a great sales man! Problem with him is he is also VERY intelligent and knows just enough about every thing it seems to make himself seem believable! It can be very anointing to argue with him! As for strangers or people I’d hire, I’m usually a good judge if character and can tell when the person talks a good game but won’t play it well!

  12. Thankfully I am do not have any friends who use big words and then have nothing to back it up. I have found though that many people have lost their common sense. Very frustrating.

    • Mary, the expressive language people aren’t always using big words, but they’re talking a lot more than they’re listening.

      And yes, it does seem like common sense is uncommonly scarce these days. Can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve stopped by asking, “WHAT is the problem we’re trying to solve?” Seems like a logical place to start, if you ask me…

  13. My twins like to use big words which really just make me smile or laugh. They hear a word or have these big words for their spelling tests and then they like to use them. Of course most of the time they don’t know what they really mean and of course with the autism there is really no receptive language. The very first word one of my twins spelled out on the fridge, with those wonderful letter magnets, was the word “adventure” which isn’t really a big word but when you see a three year old spell the word correctly all by himself it is quite impressive. Things just took off from there.
    Of course being immersed in the world of autism for over 8 years now I come across a lot of parents who are probably like some of your “megaphone” foster parents and of course there are also the people who work with them too. Who like to spout all the jargon but really know nothing about the kids themselves. Thankfully, we have some wonderful teachers, therapists and others who only have my boys’ best interest and needs at heart. Sitting in numerous waiting rooms throughout the week and listening to some of these people talk, truly make me thankful for the people we do have working with our boys.

    • Sarah, you probably have expert radar by this point for determining who got the PhD and who gets the essence of the autism challenge. Some people can do both, and aren’t they precious treasures when you find them?

  14. I’ve always been able to understand people regardless of whether the words they use are the correct ones (the ones they think they are using) or not and for a long time, just assumed everyone else could too. Once I hit my late 30’s, I realized that my ability is NOT as common as I thought. I think a lot of it has to do with the art of listening which involves much more than hearing the words. You have to look at the person, read their tone, their inflection, their body language. The more we rely on e-mail and texts, the harder it is for people to be receptive!

    • Kim, you make an excellent point. We can enhance our language skills with practice, and we can also lose them through neglect. I used to be able to memorize phone numbers easily, and now… they’re in my phone. I have to check even my daughter’s phone number.

      I’ve wondered how much the lovely cadence and balance in sentences of Regency era prose was because they wrote with a quill pen–a slow business, requiring the writer to pause to dip the pen, sand the page, blot the ink, and so forth.

      Mary Balogh wrote her first few books long hand, and her prose has some of that same elegance and confidence.

  15. Grace this reminds me of what my mother used to say about my younger brother “He hears only what he wants to hear”. I admit it took me a while to figure out what she meant but it was very true.
    There are times when I’m engrossed in reading or doing something that if you don’t get my attention first I don’t hear much or any of what you say to me. I also learned, many years ago, while working as a waitress to tune out background noise, such as a juke box or recorded music, so I could effectively do my job.
    I’ve got relatives who can sound smart but are anything but even though those who should know better don’t actually realize it. I try to have as little to do with these people as possible.

    • Molly, as usual, you have the commonsense approach. Wish I could avoid the listening impaired as effectively as you do, but when they pile up–a client, plus a social worker, plus an attorney–then somebody needs to keep her ears on.

  16. Funny you should mention Regency prose. When I am stuck in a meeting with people who are competing for biggest know-it-all, I have been known to “lapse” into regency speak. I often literally quote one of Jane Austen’s characters. It has been known to literally shut down the conversation. The one that comes rapidly to mind was when I referred to a student’s countenance. Someone finally asked me what it meant and I translated. The meeting ended shortly thereafter. Very satisfying. Rude possibly but …

    The only time I know of that I was ‘caught out’ was when a man sitting across the table looked at me as I was speaking (quoting a JA character I believe) got wide eyed, then very tight lipped and finally excused himself to go out int the media center to laugh. That was very satisfying too. I fully realize as I write this that it is possibly bratty in the extreme.

  17. Wonderful discussion! I had several classes (a long time ago!) where vocabulary building was emphasized and find myself occasionally using a word or phrase that some people would think meant I was being highfalutin or putting on airs. I wasn’t, simply using the word most appropriate to the situation. After one of my former co-workers said something was “a mute point,” it was all I could do not to smack her and yell “MOOT!” in her face, but of course I didn’t. She had heard me use the “moot point” phrase and thought it sounded smart. I’m doing technical support over the phone now and really have to stop myself from correcting people. They’re traumatized enough because their stuff doesn’t work–I certainly don’t want to make them feel even more stupid. In my writing, however I refuse to “dumb down” my dialog. In the Golden Heart competition, back when they used to give you the judges’ notes, I had one author comment, “People don’t talk like that.” Mine do, in fact, that passage had been lifted from an actual discussion I’d had with a male friend. People will either love it or hate it, but I have smart, funny, quick witted characters. You do too, Grace. I love it when I have to look something up or check out a reference.

    • MUTE POINT. Oh, when I hear another lawyer drop that one, I know William Blackstone is spinning his grave. My mom is famous for having suffered a bout of heat prostitution, and her a nurse and a good Catholic girl. We could probably fill the rest of this year’s posts with our malapropisms and the people we were too kind to correct…

      And we’d laugh pretty hard, too.

      • My sister wanted to go to my “botulism” as opposed to my “baccalaureate”. LOL I still laugh over that when I think about it.

  18. The Glib-from-Hades memory that occasionally haunts me is a former board president, a successful salesman. Unfortunately what makes a good salesman doesn’t make a good manager, either as a volunteer or a day-job. His stubborn persistence in his being right, in being the only one heard, turned a dream job into a nightmare for me and my staff. Hearing years later he was removed from a management position and transferred to a division where his sole responsibility was sales, no team or staff, was a dollop of balm that it really wasn’t me or my team instigating the problems. Maybe one day I’ll realize how I could have managed him better while still being true to myself, my ethics and protecting my team…wisdom, even if very belated!

    • My first job was for a little company still owned by the three founders, and geesh, the trials and tribulations endured when the company president goes ballistic over typos in the newsletter…

      I don’t know what the cure is for somebody who cannot listen. There’s a difference between being unable to listen (poor receptive language skills), and being unwilling to listen (close mindedness), but the practical effect is the same: ARGH!!!

  19. My parents never talked to us like children, so from an early age we had a pretty extensive vocabulary. I enjoyed being taught new words and their meanings. We were also told not to make fun of others who didn’t. This has been a problem for me since I work in Sales/Customer Service. I find a lot of people who talk big but don’t understand half of what they say in this field. I have a friend/colleague with this problem and I try to help correct her without her knowing. I’ll use the correct word in repeating what she’s said back to her and then use the wrong word she said in the correct way. It works sometimes but it normally takes repeating several times for her to catch on.

  20. Grace, I have, at times — even more in my teen years — been that person. Then, I lived in a place where I had been surrounded by like-minded children with large vocabularies and people who love to learn. Sixteen years ago, I was moved to a small town in the northern part of Florida. If I don’t ‘dumb down’ what I say, I find that I am largely avoided after being stared at like a science experiment gone wrong. I believe that is why I read so much; in books, I can travel, imagine, learn, and avoid having to deal with the lack of acceptance. Unfortunately, I wish I could say I had exaggerated any of this.

    • Mandy, I occasionally get that “you talk funny” look from my clients, who are mostly infants on up to age twenty-one. It’s… daunting, to think with all my vocabulary and legal experience, I may not be very useful to my clients because I can’t find common ground linguistically.

      And then there are the clients who have no problem communicating, regardless of their vocabularies. I was on the floor playing with pipe cleaners with one kid, a preschooler, who looked at me and said, “Mrs. Old Lady, my foster mom loves me. Tell that to the judge.”

      I did.

  21. Oh my goodness. Working as a dispatcher I am inundated daily with people who use flowery prose to try to get their point across. What amuses me to no end, is how WRONG they are when using this language!

    My agency patrols a fairly affluent area and there is the misconception among many residents that anyone who works for a police department does so because they could not get a higher education and they are scraping the bottom of the employment barrel, so to speak. There is never the consideration that maybe police officers and dispatchers actually like what they do and care about the people they serve. They also seem to be under the impression that said employees are simpletons with barely a high school level education. They don’t realize that many people in this field actually have degrees.

    It used to annoy me that most of these people try to talk down to me or intimidate me by using fancy polysyllabic words that they heard on TV. Most of the time they don’t know the meaning of the word and use it incorrectly. Little do they know, this Civil Servant on the phone is quite educated and not only understands the fancy polysyllabic words, but also their correct meaning and how to properly use them. Now I get a little perverse pleasure in correcting them when they are wrong. They usually end up stumbling over the rest of their words and never seem to get their point across.

    Like you, I am a word junkie and am always on the hunt for new and interesting words and their definitions (thank you for your “Word Corner”, by the way!) Luckily for me I work with people who love to read as much as I do and are also word junkies. We routinely search out new words in order to try to stump each other in our calls. It makes the day interesting.

    • I’ve wondered about Words with Friends. Why not words with friends, as part of the typical day? My writing buddies and I certainly enjoy words with each other.

      I’m sorry your work subjects you to hi-falutin’ condescension, but glad you don’t let it get to you, and dish it out from time to time to those who deserve it.