D. None of the Above: Wanting air time amid a wall of words
By Daniel Dunaief
I don’t know if teeter-totters exist anymore. Remember them? Two people sit on opposite ends of a board, with a support in the middle. They start at the same height, facing each other, with legs extended. One person pushes up while the other bends his or her legs and gets closer to the ground. The one on the bottom pushes off, while the one on the top heads toward the ground.
The image seems like an apt simile for conversations.
You see, one person talks, while the other listens, and then, the listener becomes the speaker and the speaker the listener. Such simple descriptions don’t work in group dialogue.
In one-on-one conversations, these interactions sometimes involve prolonged periods when one person is on the ground, and the other is stuck in the air, waiting for the speaker to stop talking so he or she can come to the ground and share some thoughts and reactions.
I have had numerous experiences where it seems the teeter-totter gets stuck in one position, much more often than not with me dangling in the air. Yes, I am a decent listener. No, I don’t hear or register everything my wife or anyone else tells me. I do, however, have an ability to listen to a meandering story that includes many detours, recitations of facts that aren’t germane to the main thread of the story, and to self editing. To wit:
“It was a Tuesday that I lost my dog.”
“No, wait, it was a Wednesday and it wasn’t my dog, it was my cat.”
“No, no, it was a Tuesday, and it was neither my dog nor my cat, but it was my car keys. The point is that I lost something before I found it. That was also the day I got a new job.”
Somewhere along the lines, I wonder what happened to the fine art of conversational teeter-tottering, with a predictable and relaxing back-and-forth rhythm.
The stories from another person continue, with one bleeding into the next one so endlessly that I feel like I’m listening to excerpts from several different books on tape.
As I listen, I wonder what my role is. Clearly, the other person doesn’t want or need to hear much from me.
I sometimes wish there were a swimmer’s clock behind the person’s head, which would allow me to time the minutes between sounds like “uh huh,” and “oh yeah,” and “really? no way! That’s terrible/wonderful/amazing/ridiculous!”
It’s the Mad Libs version of listening to the same story, or a variation of that story, while throwing in the appropriate, or sufficiently irreverent, adjective.
I raise my eyebrows periodically in response to the tone of the person’s voice, going through lists of chores in my head, wondering who didn’t give this person a chance to speak when he or she was younger.
An actual pause periodically arrives. My toes dig happily into the welcome sand beneath me, reveling in the auditory opening.
I don’t want to wait too long to say something, because people aren’t always comfortable with quiet, which can restart an ongoing monologue.
After I express an idea, or sometimes just a phrase, I feel my body ascending back into space. Wait, did I not make it clear that I wasn’t done? How am I dangling above the ground again?
Suspended in mid-air, I suppose I could consider those moments as the equivalent of listening to a bird singing a repetitive tune echoing among the eaves.
Perhaps in the future, we can create a verbal shorthand when we feel we’ve lost conversational balance. Maybe, we can just say “teeter-totter” when we need to speak.