There is something very unique about the sense of hearing that sets it apart from every other sense we possess. Simply put, your hearing does not belong to you. At least, not entirely.
This is the reason people get so frustrated when we don’t hear them first time, the reason they take it personally whenever they have to repeat themselves. People expect our hearing to be there for them, whenever they need it, whenever they want it. They have something to say, and we are there to listen. They expect us to hear them first time, accurately. What else would account for that flash of annoyance we see when they notice we’re wearing headphones: How dare you use your hearing for something private! they seem to tell us.
We have closed the blinds, bolted the door, withdrawn the welcome mat. By choosing not to hear them, we have taken away something they believed was rightfully theirs: the right to be heard.
Living Beyond Ourselves
Hearing is the Social Sense. It connects us to one another in real time. When we fail to keep that connection open, people experience the same frustration and annoyance that other intermittent connections bring: when we flick the light switch and find there’s no electricity; when we’re on our cell phone and the signal keeps dropping; when we try to access a website and the browser hangs; when we reach the airport only to discover our flight’s been cancelled.
Sure, human beings can live without electricity, our cells phones, the Internet and travel. But think what we’ve achieved socially, culturally, economically because of them!
Our connections become extensions of ourselves, enabling us to live beyond our own capabilities and enabling society to evolve. To appreciate the importance of this, consider another extension of yourself, such as your hands. Can you live without them? Sure, you can, but you may have to change the way you do things, and there may be some things you can’t. But because you have these extensions of yourself, it enables you to do things more efficiently and perhaps even things that might otherwise be impossible for you. Having no hands wouldn’t stop you being you—unless, perhaps, you consider your identity to consist solely of what you can do with your hands—but it would undoubtedly alter your potential and your opportunities.
Opportunity or Frustration?
And, so, we come to depend on these extensions of ourselves. They’re always available for us, so we use them in fulfillment of our goals as and when appropriate. We think nothing of using our hands to pick up a pen and jotting down a note, or grasping a hot cup of coffee, or brushing your teeth. It feels automatic. When we do these things, our brain plans then sends a signal to our hands, our hands carry out the action and feeds back to the brain to say “task complete”: goal → action → feedback → completion.
Our brain is constantly comparing outcomes to expected outcomes, using this feedback loop to continuously monitor and modify the action accordingly, to ensure the task is fulfilled as intended. And it’s not just our hands, it’s any action we perform, including the production of speech.1
Sure, for new tasks, we’d expect there to be errors and corrections along the way, but that’s OK—we know it will require more effort and attention, and we allow for that: learning something new is always more tiring than something we’ve done a thousand times previously. But once we’ve mastered a task, and we can do it automatically, the pay-off is lower effort and lower attention.2 And that means more resources available for other goals. It is only when our expectation is suddenly not met—when our goal is unexpectedly blocked—that the brain has to pull in additional resources to figure out what’s going on and how to update its plan to achieve its goal. This is what we experience as frustration. And that accompanying feeling of annoyance we get when something doesn’t go our way? It’s the activation of the brain’s aggression circuits preparing your body with the extra energy it needs to remove the obstacle to your goal.3
When we use any tool—whether it’s a pen, a wheel, a cell phone, a website, an automobile—our brains incorporate it into its map of our capabilities and available resources.4 Doing so extends the opportunities and goals available to us. And because we design tools for specific purposes, they help us fulfill goals with minimal effort or attention required.
So, when the intended purpose breaks down, and our goals are unexpectedly blocked, we experience the same frustration as if that tool was a part of us. If you’ve ever felt like tossing your laptop across the room in frustration because “it’s not behaving properly”, then you’ll know how closely aggression and blocked goals are to one another.
Equal Partners or Annoying Obstacles
Now we begin to see why people get frustrated and annoyed when we do not hear them first time, accurately. We have become obstacles to their goals. If that’s the case, it must mean people are seeing us as extensions of their own capabilities and resources. But doesn’t that make the listener nothing more than a tool for the convenience of the speaker? Only if the relationship is one-sided.
Providing the relationship between two humans remains equal, and both stand to gain from the interaction, we become partners together in the creation of a shared future.
This is where spoken language comes in: it is completely and utterly dependent on a shared ability to distinguish one phoneme from another. Change a single phoneme, and the “cat” becomes a “rat”, a “kiss” becomes a “kick”, the “we” becomes a “me”. As speakers we automatically expect our listeners to make these distinctions, and as listeners we expect the speaker to pronounce things distinctly enough for us to make them. It is a pre-agreed social contract designed to share the effort of conversation evenly, making it the perfect tool for in-the-moment human interaction.
When you hear accusations of “mumbling” and “not listening” what you’re dealing with is a broken contract—the balance of effort has been disrupted, somebody’s goals have been blocked, and there’s going to be annoyance. To deal with it, you must avoid taking sides and focus on establishing the mutual goals.
Powder Kegs of Human Potential
It may be weird to think of spoken language as a tool, but that’s exactly what it is. And a remarkable tool it happens to be, connecting one mind to another in real time, synchronising two or more human beings in space and time.
Consider all the people who ever lived. You may be able to read about them in books. You may even hear what they said in the past. But you cannot influence their thoughts, feelings and goals in real-time. The flow of information is one-way. To have a conversation, that’s special. Really special. It’s a mutual melding of minds, a partnership of reciprocity in which each supplies what the other lacks, and common ground is established.
Conversation is a convergence of two or more unique individuals, each one a powder keg of human potential waiting for the spark of opportunity. When our ability to hear or our willingness to listen is compromised, this convergence breaks down. We miss the moment, lose the opportunity, dampen the potential.
Thus, spoken language enables us to live beyond ourselves and our own limitations by connecting us with the unique thoughts, feelings, experiences and competencies of others. It gives us an incredible shared platform for addressing problems too big, too complex for one mind alone. It’s taken you a lifetime to get your mind to where it is today, and that gives you a unique capacity within the world at this time, this place, this situation that no other person can replace. Had you lived a different life, your thoughts, feelings, experiences and competencies would be different—perhaps very different. But you can never live another person’s life—we only get the one chance!—just as another person can never live yours.
What we can do, however, is bring all those different lives, all those different minds, together through conversation:
“Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.”
Together We’re So Much More
A speaker is nothing without the listener. When we speak, we want to be heard. We need to be heard. We know, instinctively, that there’s only so much we can do alone. But when we are unwilling to listen in return, we strip our fellow human beings of their status as equal partners, treating them as no better than tools we pick up at our own convenience simply because we “want to say something.”
By closing our ears, we also risk trapping ourselves within our own internalised worlds. And with no outside voices to challenge us, we rule our tiny worlds in isolation, deluded by our own rightness, relying on stale memories rather than living the Now. It is only by staying connected to one another that we get to live beyond ourselves, and it is only by staying connected to one another that society gets the chance to evolve.
Hearing is the Social Sense. We expect to hear each other first time, accurately. It is not about who has “clinically normal” hearing and who doesn’t. It is about doing everything we can to keep our own connections strong and constant, equal partners in the creation of a shared future. It is an attitude that recognises that together we are so much more.
Hearing is the Social Sense, turning the “me” into the “we”.
- Fuster, J. M. (2015) The prefrontal cortex, The Prefrontal Cortex. doi: 10.1097/00005053-199002000-00012.
- Palmeri, T. J. (2006) ‘Automaticity’, in Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, pp. 1–12. doi: 10.1002/0470018860.s00488.
- Yu, R. et al. (2014) ‘The neural signature of escalating frustration in humans’, Cortex, 54(1), pp. 165–178. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2014.02.013.
- Cardinali, L. et al. (2009) ‘Tool-use induces morphological updating of the body schema (DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2009.05.009)’, Current Biology, 19(13), p. 1157. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.06.048.
About the Author
Curtis Alcock is a full-time hearing care professional and managing director of Audify®, an independent hearing centre in the United Kingdom. Curtis is also the founder of Audira, a think tank for hearing, the main aim of which is to create a new social norm for hearing care. He has lectured internationally in Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia on how to change society’s attitudes to hearing care and has written extensively on the future of hearing care and the changing role of the hearing care professional in a world where things are become increasingly computerised and commoditised. His articles on encouraging earlier adoption of hearing technology have featured in professional journals in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and has twice made the front cover of The Hearing Review. In 2013, he won the Ida Institute’s award for best public awareness campaign, which has since been used in the United States and across Europe translated into 12 different languages.