Tuesday, April 08, 2014


So down towards the bottom of the commitments I have made is 'listening' something, a skill set, that has been on my 'to learn' list since just about forever.

And while I'm even less committed to listening exercises than I am to drumming practice (which is to say not very committed) I do from time to time summon up the presence of mind to stop talking about myself and enquire into other people's state of wellbeing.

In fact, I have learned a few tricks. One is to associate with people it is easy to listen to. Exciting, interesting people. Another not very good one is to deflect all personal questions back onto whoever is talking to you. It may not be good, but it sets up listening as an act of martial dominance that I seem to actually be capable of getting my personality around.

For example, if somebody asks me the open ended 'how are you?/how have you been?/how is your life?' I answer them with a platitude 'good' then hit them with a much more specific and conversation inducing 'how did the vesectomy of your rabbit go?' and suddenly, I am listening to them talk.

It's pretty magical to somebody who talks about themselves all the time to get this trick down.

I'm not really conscious of how long this has been working for me, and I am conscious that some people I do the opposite to and try and shut them down (very very rare) but recently I've been noticing that I actually quite often don't have to use the trick at all.

When I start making a concerted effort to listen to people, it coincided with me having stuff I actually wanted to talk about, not just to reflexively control conversation. I noticed that people rarely pay attention to me, I am yet to get into a true duel of listeners. Once I get somebody talking about their life, they tend to just keep talking.

And it's great, it's actually great for me to learn that other people are the heroes of their own stories, to get a reminder that not everyone (read: nobody) actually needs me there at all. And it's not even a damning thing, a scathing indictment of our society.

It's natural. Normal. Good.

In the last season of Qi, they talked about an early psychology study where researchers concealed themselves under the beds of dormitory students to find out what they talked about. It turned out that 80% or something of the time, people talk about themselves.

But I wanted to point to a form of egocentricity I found counter-intuitive, and thus deeply valuable. As I wrote earlier on this blog I've never experienced first hand depression or anxiety, but I have read about it, and recall vividly, reading something to the effect of 'depressives are by nature self absorbed...'

It kind of fractured and rearranged my naive notions of depression, and over time anxiety (which I started to encounter in others long after reading the thing) as somebody who spends heaps of time worrying about shit out of their direct control, like genocide in Rwanda or something.

I've since increasingly learned that this type of egocentricity holds true. While it's natural to be the hero of your own story, in the depressed and anxious (it seems) there's a failure to do the basic differential, an error is made where people assume they are the hero of other people's stories too.

I feel like the 'basic differential' may not be obvious, so I'll illustrate it. If I wake up tomorrow having a bad hair day (currently, highly likely) I may be concerned that I will look bad, perhaps ridiculous or foolish. However, when I walk out my doors into a world populated by people, I can project my own concern for my own appearance onto all those people. The amount of time I spend concerned about my own appearance if 'normal' leaves me little time to be concerned about the appearance of others. In fact I spend almost no time concerned about the appearance of others. If this holds true of others, I need not actually be concerned about my appearance, as everyone else is most likely, preoccupied with their own.

As such, there's only a few occasions in my life where I will be concerned about my appearance, these are times where my appearance enters the domain of somebody else's ego. Like a job interview or a date. Somebody is potentially taking some onus of me, so they will actually be concerned about my appearance. The rest of the time, fuck it. I am default invisible, protected by everyone else's egocentricity.

But say I'm sitting at work, I look over at my friend Jon and he seems withdrawn and miserable - I am inclined to think 'I wonder what Jon is thinking?'

What I've come to experience in people consistently anxious, shy, withdrawn or depressed, is that they are naturally inclined not to think 'I wonder what Jon is thinking?' but instead think 'I wonder what Jon thinks of me?'

Yet these are not the typical narcissists we intuitively think of as egocentric. Note that I'm not saying obnoxious narcissists aren't egocentric, but that the shy sensitive types are often overlooked as really egocentric.

Because they are shy, and they are sensitive, in ways that are baffling and perplexing to me.

I have once pointed out to somebody particularly anxious about the good opinion of others that they shouldn't care because people don't actually care, and it didn't go down well. As in it provided them no relief, and they said I made them feel worse. Careless language I guess, and perhaps people don't possess my same level of opportunism.

The hard thing is, that its hard to notice just how many people you don't notice every day, and realise that you are most likely, not noticed by a lot of people that you will never get to know and will never come to know or care about you over the course of your life.

How many times have you been to 7-11? Did you ever stop to think that you will probably never see the person who served you ever again? It's a Louis C K bit, why don't we have farewell expressions like 'I don't care if you die.' (in the same bit, he also unnervingly pointed out that statistically somebody in the audience was likely to die that night, almost certainly before they ever saw him again.)

I've probably depressed a bunch of already depressed people. But even depressives need to be challenged from time to time. It's not tough love, it's actually argument. An attack on a self-delusion.

Consider: A ship is going down in the middle of the pacific, in the middle of a storm, in the middle of the night. The Cabin crew are roused awake by Captain Ingrid, cool-under-fire, charismatic, born-leader Ingrid. She starts issuing orders and prepping the passengers to abandon ship.

In contrast there's Steve, quiet and unassuming, his worst fears have been realised. He clings to a life vest and patiently stands out of the way as Ingrid takes charge.

I can't know, and neither can you who is the more egocentric character, but I'm willing to bet. Our societal intuition is to label charismatic Ingrid as an 'extrovert' and identify leaders as egotistical, assertive characters. Queit and polite Steve is seen as shy and sensitive (which he is) and an introvert, and therefore we assume he is relatively non-egocentric.

I bet the other way, the situation is, Ingrid is concerned about everybody's lives, and by assuming the organisational role and assuming responsibility for everyone, she is actually assuming the downside risk (drowning - death) for the sake of everyone else. Steve is concerned about his own survival, happy to defer all decision making to Ingrid and interpreting the ship wreck as God's personal vendetta against him. Even the act of getting out of the way may be more motivated by not wanting to be attacked or dragged under by a panicked fellow passenger than actually trying to cooperate so as to maximise everyone's chance of survival.

It's important to not confuse Ingrid an actual leader with many of the self-centered people who vie for leadership in the popular press. A sinking ship is a situation where the responsibilities of leadership, the costs and risks of leadership far outweigh the perks. It's a sad sign of the times that so many positions of power these days involve almost all perks and no responsibility/accountability, such that we need it actually pointed out to us that they are 'leaders'.

There's a double bind, with this lesser appreciated egocentricity. It's not an arrogant egocentricity, it's obviously crippling and costly. An affliction. Imagine having to worry excessively about your hair or appearance based on what fellow train commuters might think of you? I'm exhausted already. But it's generally not true that you don't actually care about people in this bind. Yet, should you express your concern for them, you are reinforcing the notion that they weigh on your thoughts.

I don't have the answer, and the answer can't be simple, else we'd have it already. 

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