Active listening as a rhetorical choice: The discursive implications of “bad” and “good” listening

We know that body language usually communicates more than what you say, and identifying these physical queues is something we’ve been socialized to identify our entire lives.  We know that yawning, for instance, often comes across as boredom.  We know how to express good listening skills by maintaining eye contact and sitting upright instead of slumping down in our chairs and doodling in notebook margins.  In class discussions, professors have to be particularly apt at reading students’ body language.  They have to sense when a student is trying to jump into the class discussion but can’t quite get a word in.  They have to know the difference between diligent note-taking and avoidance of eye contact.  They have to know an “aha” moment from a complacent nod.

However, how much can we really control in these exchanges, whether it be on the part of the speaker or the listener?  How can we hold ourselves accountable for the messages we intend to communicate and those we don’t?

An important caveat to this question is that the speaker and the listener are both interpreting and communicating at the same time.  What we say, how we respond (verbally or silently), and the body language that accompanies both, all create a collaborative “text” for both the speaker and listener to interpret.  In this sense, “active listening” doesn’t just describe the actions we take to reassure the speaker that we are listening, but rather, characterizes the act of listening as a response, or a choice, that impacts the exchange in powerful ways.

While we can’t completely control how others’ interpret our ideas, we can leave less room for more egregious misinterpretations (particularly in the absence of words, such as when we are listening) by harnessing the power of the physical internally.  As previous posts have described, our body language changes the way we think.  Psychologists such as Amy Cuddy have been doing years of research that demonstrates just how powerful the link between body language and identity is.  As her TED Talk shows, striking what Cuddy calls a “power pose” — sitting up straight, lifting your arms in the air, doing jumping jacks, or simply uncrossing your legs to fill up more space — lowers cortisol (the stress hormone) and increases testosterone (the dominance hormone, which is usually the precursor to more assertive, confrontational behavior).  Slumping down in your chair, then, does more than send a message to the speaker that you’re bored or disinterested — it actually lowers the likelihood that you can be interested and engaged.

The infographic below (created by suggests, too, that small physical changes make a big difference.  But, what about moments when we don’t want to listen?  When is listening “badly,” consciously or unconsciously, a form of resistance, and what discursive impacts does that resistance illicit?

Body Language Infographic


The Window and the Door

There are between 6600-6800 distinct languages being spoken in the world today[1]. Each corresponds to a specific culture; a trail of traditions, ideas, and feelings can never truly be translated from its mother tongue to another. Studying these cultures and their products provides us only a window into their reality while learning the language provides a door through which deeper knowledge can be attained. Take for example words such as Saudade, a Brazilian world for nostalgic longing for home, or Waldeinsamkeit, a German word for the feeling of being alone in the woods. These words don’t exist in English and yet they capture nuances of their mother culture that tell us about the intimacies of the cultural psyche that created them. Of all of these global languages I know only one and a half (I’m still working on my Spanish). I’ve set a life goal for four– clearly I’ve got a long way to go, and even then four is a tiny fraction of what’s out there. In this world of so many languages how many do you know?


Languages are subject to natural evolution like all elements of culture. However there are also mindfully created languages, such as Esperanto. As a child, created code languages fascinated me. I spent hours learning and speaking Pig Latin, Ubbi Dubbi, and countless other languages with my cousins hoping always to find new ways to secretively communicate. Using code my cousins and I created a world that excluded and baffled others. There frustration was our goal. I found it weird that English, what I spoke with my parents, could be understood by anyone walking by. In a world so large and intimidating Pig Latin and Ubbi Dubbi built a wall of protection and intimacy around us.


What I didn’t realize was that my language didn’t need protecting: my abstract thoughts and disjointed sentences– my kid-talk– made my words to hard understand without even trying. Hilarious home videos show me standing on the couch in my living room at five and six years, old passionately proclaiming words that when strung together make very little sense. This inability to effectively communicate was the product of a child’s mind, so wild and free, yet utterly disorganized when compared to an adult’s.


While kid-talk is not considered one of the world’s 6800-6900’s languages, it is charming to listen to and does provide a door into the functioning of the child mind, just as studying foreign languages opens the door to foreign cultures. The Scared is Scared, a student video recently sent to me by friend, wonderfully presents this concept through the actualization of a child’s narrative. It’s also got some pretty impressive life advice woven into it as well. Kid-talk, though perhaps at times disjointed, can illuminate the beauty of simple conclusions that adults miss. Disorder, at times, opens the door to clarity.

[1] “1. Language and Writing.” International Mother Language Day., 2004. Web. 14 Feb. 2013.

Accenting the Accent

Every now and then, someone will tell me, “You speak English so well!” A compliment? Only if speaking standard American English—perhaps with a slight California tinge—signifies a level of competency and accomplishment. If standard American English corresponds to good education, a good family, a good background. If speaking English any other way means something about me and my ancestry is suspicious, low-brow, or incorrect. It’s a compliment if, by speaking without some accent, I’ve somehow overcome some great obstacle.

In June Jordan‘s essay, “Nobody Means More to Me Than You and the Future Life of Willie Jordan,” she details the struggle associated with growing up hearing and speaking Black English. Her words echo the lives of many Americans, who live in a society where “White English…is ‘Standard English.'” For some, to grow up in a home where White English is not the standard is to form an identity of inferiority in a predominantly white society.

Jordan describes a childhood caught between Black English at home and White English in society. She writes, “We begin to grow up in a house where every true mirror shows us the face of somebody who does not belong there, whose walk and whose talk will never look or sound “right,” because that house was meant to shelter a family that is alien and hostile to us. As we learn our way around this environment, either we hide our original word habits, or we completely surrender our own voice, hoping to please those who will never respect anyone different from themselves.”

That home—a place meant to embody comfort—could be “hostile” reveals the paradox of growing up in both the private family and the public society. Black English is both “home” and “alien.” Identity becomes split between “original word habits,” spoken at home (i.e. Black English) and White English spoken in public, “hoping to please those who will never respect anyone different from themselves.” The prejudice is clear: Black English might be comfortable, but it’s wrong. White English, no matter how unnatural, is the only right way to speak.

This schism between a personal identity and a public identity extends beyond Jordan’s life and her work with primarily black students and Black English. Why is it that the standard American English or British English are considered to be the “correct” way of speaking? Why do these accents sound educated and informed to ears while regionally or racially tinted languages are heard as inferior?

It’s no secret that a preference for standard American English penetrates the definition of success in America. Just a few days ago, in his State of the Union address, President Obama said that being a full citizen means learning English. The uncomfortable truth is that the United States is still segregated based on language—and by extension, race—in many aspects of society, including where people live, work, and attend school. Families that speak with non-white accents still have trouble finding employment, housing, and schooling for their children, though they may hold full rights and citizenship. If employers and landlords and teachers “can’t understand” their employees, residents, students, they can’t trust them.

According to the Barnard website, our student body has “over 30% students of color,” which corresponds to 70% of the student body with white or European ancestry. According to the CIA World Factbook, 79.96 of the American population also identifies as white. Does a campus that more or less reflects the demographics of United States also reflect the prejudices? Do the accent affinities that dominate the United States dominate our campus as well? I would hope not, but I’m not always sure.

For the record, English is my first and only language. I have never learned Chinese beyond the words for my favorite dishes. But when I have traditional Asian features, speaking unaccented English is apparently a skill, even at a school like Barnard. Even in a city like New York. It’s a part of me that teachers, employers and peers understand—a part that they can trust. In the end, I don’t know if it will matter that I have full citizenship or quality education, when I look like I might not. My English major may not be worth anything unless I can speak English so very well.

Get your own, personal Barnard Speaking Fellow. For free.

Beginning Tuesday, February 5th, every Barnard* student can meet with her own, personal Speaking Fellow to develop her public speaking and presentation skills.

Speaking Fellows are undergraduate Barnard students who have been specially trained to help students craft, prepare, and deliver presentations and participate in class discussions.  Speaking Fellows can work with students on a range of skills, such as:

  • How to organize and structure ideas
  • How to create a persuasive, well-reasoned argument
  • How to make key points in clear, precise ways
  • How to use visual aids
  • How to improve and polish delivery

To sign up for a one-on-one session with a Speaking Fellow, register an account online.  For more information about this and other Speaking Fellow opportunities, visit the Speaking Program website:

*Columbia students may also make appointments with Speaking Fellows if they are enrolled in a Barnard course or have permission from their Columbia professor/TA.