You listen to who you know

Class started at 10:30 in the morning. I faced my students, coffee cup in hand. They were hard to read, but they always are early in the semester. We are still feeling each other out, unsure how much confidence to grant one another, wondering if there’s a space for trust. Do they really want to learn? I ask myself. Does she care about my interests? They wonder. Can I be myself around my classmates?

This initial space of, well, not exactly mistrust per se, but a vague wariness and uncertainty, is how we as human beings respond to new situations and people. We’re feeling each other out, trying to determine who everyone is and ferreting out whether or not we can trust what they say.

That morning, I ran the students through an exercise to identify the ways in which we communicate, and are communicated to, in just the short span of a few hours.

“How have you been communicated to just this morning?” I asked, staring at them, gauging for comprehension in their eyes. “By that I mean, how have you received messages from others since the moment your alarm went off until you found your way here?”

There were a few funny quips, such as: A girl glared at me in the parking lot. My cat mewled at me. But almost all of the responses were: My dad called. My friends texted. I read social media posts. I got some emails from professors or family.

With the exception of one single student who watched the news for a few minutes while getting dressed, the only exchanges of information that flowed back and forth that morning were between my students and their immediate, trusted sphere of influence (excepting the glare in the parking lot, of course.) They got information from their family, friends and social media circles (based on our friend networks). Oh, and a cat, that’s right.

Similarly, when asked to whom they communicated, it was the same story. Friends, family, social media sphere of influence.

It was also astonishing to learn the tens if not hundreds of ways they had communicated, and been communicated to, before just 10:30 in the morning. It was a remarkable avalanche of information racing back and forth.

What was so striking about this exercise was not just the sheer quantity of communication we engage in today, but that it drove home the reality of our ‘spheres of influence.’ We haven’t moved far from ‘over the backyard fence’ conversations of earlier times. We’re still talking, and listening, to those we know – our families, friends and virtual neighbors (social media). Take a moment and think of your own interactions today. How much of your information was received from, and given to, people with whom you had established prior relationships?

Just as my students need time to warm up to a new class before they will communicate, and receive communication, freely and with trust, the same can be said for all audiences. Establishing trust takes time. And we are (somewhat irrationally) inclined to trust those we know over experts who are rightfully qualified to speak to a subject.

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