John B Keane: Listen up! What I have to say is important

TODAY I would like to deal with a not uncommon sort of person who has afforded me many moments of pleasure and, alas, many moments of anguish. I refer, of course, to those persons who pretend to listen carefully but never take in a word of what is being said to them. Men who like to be seen in public and who like to be regarded as people of consequence are most gifted in the art of pretending to listen. Their faces are filled alternatively with wonder and concern while they cast quick glances about them almost unnoticed to find out if their presence out of doors is being noticed or to see if anybody of importance is in the vicinity.

TODAY I would like to deal with a not uncommon sort of person who has afforded me many moments of pleasure and, alas, many moments of anguish. I refer, of course, to those persons who pretend to listen carefully but never take in a word of what is being said to them. Men who like to be seen in public and who like to be regarded as people of consequence are most gifted in the art of pretending to listen. Their faces are filled alternatively with wonder and concern while they cast quick glances about them almost unnoticed to find out if their presence out of doors is being noticed or to see if anybody of importance is in the vicinity.

While pretending to absorb most assiduously all that is being said to them they can manage somehow to salute all and sundry and find time as well to impart sallies and shafts and short commentaries to those who happen to be casually passing by. Sometimes the person to whom they pretend to be listening is conscious of the fact that his words are falling on deaf ears but he does not mind because he is of the same ilk himself and if the roles were reversed he would pay no attention whatsoever to whatever was being said to him.

Fortunately there are in the world two quite common types who genuinely complement each other. They are, in order of merit, those who like to listen and those who like to talk. Those who like to talk as you will have gathered, have no business doing so unless they can capture or attract a listener.

A captive listener is of little use to the talker. He may pay attention to what is being told to him but the look of displeasure on his face while he is being forced to do so knocks all the good out of it for the listener. He is in a hurry to be away and while he may digest what is being imparted to him and while he may even benefit from the disclosures at some later time it is not worth it to the talker who likes expressions of appreciation, however insincere of meaningless they may be.

Therefore, the best type of listener, or rather the most satisfactory one as far as the talker is concerned, is he who is studiously receptive, intent on what is being said and seeming at all times to be paying the closest possible attention by means of gesture and facial expression to every word that comes his way.

I myself have often played the role of talker on occasions when it suited the listener to be seen talking to me. I would open up by saying that it was a nice day but then abruptly change the subject by referring to a reported new cattle disease in Kenya.

My listener might say with great interest: “Is that a fact?” and his face would show the gravest concern but not a single word would be going through. Once, while at a race meeting where a great crowd of people were gathered, I was addressing a listener who was vainly trying to attract the attention of some celebrities who stood nearby. At the time I was holding forth about the weather, the great ally of wordless souls. My listener showed the most profound interest but surreptitiously he was vainly trying to be saluted or recognised or acknowledged in any way by the celebrities I have mentioned.

“Your head,” I said to him, “grows bigger every day.”

“So they say,” he said absently, “so they say.”

“And,” I went on, “your mouth grows bigger too.”

“Isn’t it time for it,” he said, “isn’t it time for it.”

“That’s bad enough,” I told him, “but there’s thunder forecast.”

“So they say,” he said, “so they say.”

“Some people are terrified of thunder,” I pointed out.

“Isn’t it time for it,” he said, “Isn’t it time for it.”

What happens, though, when two non-listeners meet and do not even go to bother of pretending to listen to what one or the other is saying .

The result is chaos. It only happens, however, with teenage girls. They like to stand at corners and talk non-stop while their eyes search every corner of the locality for a glimpse of the current notion. I daresay we must be up to something while we are doing our thinking and planning, and not listening is as good as anything.