Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 18 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Listening slowly, A+ and Social Media


Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 18 seconds

Reading Time: 5 minutes

We all know some people talk too fast (or slow) but is it possible to listen too slowly?

When I was an undergrad, I had the privilege of participating in a P&G lT seminar where students from all over Europe Middle East and Africa. It was a few days long, a simulation of what working at P&G’s IT department was like with a multinational team of people who just met (talk about developing cross-cultural skills fast!). None of us students was a native speaker of English. One time a really sweet Lithuanian participant looked at me quizzically after I had said something and I said, “Sorry, am I speaking too quickly?” and he responded, “Maybe I am listening too slowly”. It was a really cute cross-cultural-linguistic joke ๐Ÿ™‚ I still like it.

But I am also thinking now in terms of rapid-fire social media interactions and whether we might actually need to try and listen more slowly, to understand what the other person is trying to express. Where they are coming from and why they might be saying something in  a certain way. I love Twitter chats but occasionally lose a thread of convo coz of a cultural reference that is unfamiliar to me.

Just today Simon Ensor signed an email like this: A plus

I was like, “Simon, what’s A plus? A  grade?”

He clarified it meant “later”, was French, short for “a plus tard”. He was saying “see u later”.

If I had let that go, I would have totally misunderstood what he had written. Because “A plus” really only ever meant one thing to me before. I just knew it couldn’t possibly be what Simon was saying because I know him enough to know he wouldn’t be “grading” me even to express he appreciated something (would have been worse if he had written D minus of course haha; then again for mainstream Egyptians letter grades mean absolutely nothing; it’s not something used in our regular edu system). It didn’t make sense. Now, of course, Simon is someone whose writing exemplifies subtlety in language – it reminds me all the time of how language can be interpreted differently by different people in different contexts. It sounds obvious but we forget this.

I remember the time someone from England said on Twitter, “let’s have a tea party” and someone from the US said, “that has right-wing political connotations here” (for some reason I was familiar with that usage but would never have pointed it out Coz i knew what she meant – however i think the convo was meant as a joke and not a rebuke and don’t ask how u can detect such tones on Twitter, but u often can and not just with emoticons).

I remember my friend from England who always tells me that i use “mad” in the American sense of “angry” but she expects it to mean “crazy” (except she focuses enough on the context to know i mean “angry” and she checks with me; i try to notice my words before i use them, but it’s hard). My mixed up English/American education means I could use an expression that mixes both and confuse native speakers. Let’s not even go into Egyptian English (Anglo-Arab it’s called, but tricky to even generalize to Arabic coz one word can be rude to use in Egypt but acceptable in Lebanon and mean something totally different in Kuwait).

When on Twitter the medium and our busy lives can make us read too quickly and write too fast. I was reminded by a friend of the importance of occasionally re-reading a conversation to check for when communication can fail or falter.

Recently I read “mortality” as “morality”. I only noticed in re-reading.

I also often mistype “I” as “u” which produces AWFUL misunderstandings. Really bad ones i tell you. And it could get worse.

Someone recently made a joke involving bananas. Yeah. It could be taken in different ways.

The other day i said something on Twitter thinking it was clear i was talking about power and privilege but an observer of a convo that ensued explained to me that I used a trigger term that feminists had history /context for. Someone in that convo needed to listen more slowly (i swear i tried hard to understand), because i kept reaching dead ends of not understanding the responses i was getting. Until someone explained to me the context… Slowly.

So there’s the danger of writing something different than what we thought we were typing; a danger of the abbreviated format making us less careful about our choice of words and a danger of the rapid fire discussion making us not listen slowly enough to consider why someone responds a certain way, or to stop and question why someone said something like that. There are layers and layers of context we can miss and I am not even taking account of cultural differences here.

Speaking of, someone on facebook wrote something about expanding views of marriage to include polygamy in the US, to be inclusive of immigrants from tribal cultures. This was a trigger for me: Mormons and Muslims have polygamy and are not tribal cultures. While responding i realized that a. Though i am not a fan of polygamy, i defend ppl’s religious rights to believe in it for themselves (but err not my own husband’s right…oops), and that a country that talks about freedom should probably respect that too (i know there are limits to what could be harmful – i wouldn’t expect the state to support honor killings or FGM for example) and also that inadvertently I may have seemed offended by the tribal reference when I should respect tribal cultures, too. Just that th history of Islam was a bit about making civilized society out of unifying tribes (and i just noticed the colonial implications of that – AND the Egyptian pride of never having been tribal because of a long history of Civilization). I could have taken great offense and stewed or lashed out. Or i could have assumed the writer (because I knew her) meant well – so I just wrote a gentle comment and her response helped me understand what she was getting at (racism not just religious discrimination).

In light of all this, it’s really amazing how we communicate across gender and culture lines. How all means of expression be they text or image or gesture can have multiple meanings and connotations – and then we add social media and presume to “understand” each other. It’s almost a miracle. And I value all the interactions I have there and wonder at how  they ever come about in the midst of all these possibilities for unproductive noise!

So I also came across this “seeing spaces” poster and wondered if it showed a good metaphor of how looking at the small rectangle that is our screen obscures a more holistic vision of what is really happening around us. Imagine this. Imagine if for every tweet a person sent, I could automatically know where they are from and what they had said to me before. It happens naturally with people we DO know and we fill details in because we expect certain things from them (probably often correctly if we know them well enough). But when we don’t misunderstandings can go nuts. Or if we know them but it’s a hot button issue for them, misunderstandings can go nuts. I am not sure where to go from here ๐Ÿ™‚ Better sleep on it


  1. A+ excellent work Maha. Humour…
    (omg she will now imagine I am not saying it’s excellent)

    To paraphrase da Vinci:

    Conversations are never finished, they are abandoned.

    I reckon we spend much of our existence in misunderstanding.

    “As soon as we start putting our thoughts into words and sentences everything gets distorted, language is just no damn goodโ€”I use it because I have to, but I donโ€™t put any trust in it. We never understand each other.”

    Marcel Duchamp


    • We spend much of our existence in misunderstanding. I agree. You speak w so much more clarity here than the ppl u quote ๐Ÿ˜‰ then again i may be misunderstanding u all ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. My question here is this: if I choose to use the word ‘tribal’ as I understand it and need to use it because there are no suitable cognates, then must I censor my own speech when I know the person I am writing to would be offended? Probably. What if I am writing to a general audience? How aware must I be and how sensitive must I be to possible offense? I have a very fine-haired trigger point these days to the negative effects of self-censorship. I have had to ‘bite my tongue’ way too often and a recent experience was a very public one. Someone tried to use a public online space to shame me into silence. Does a personal experience like this factor in here when we talk about free speech or must I always eat my own history in favor of cultural sensitivity? All words connote. And they connote differently depending upon context. We can be honest with each other as we try bridge the language gaps AND as you say and I have said, speak and listen as slowly as we can.

    I come at this in a very one-sided way as a speaker and writer of English, as that fabled “privileged white male” you spoke of in an April post, but I do come at it with as much awareness as I can muster. That is the best I can do. I can only accomodate so much not because I don’t want to but because I can’t. Well, part of me doesn’t want to. The lazy part that wants to be unburdened by nuance and cultural difference and all of the world of living that I am unlikely to ever see because it is so far away. But mostly I don’t know and rely on others to tell me when I have crossed a line I never knew existed. Just remember that we all have those lines, even the privileged white dinosaurs like me.

    • Hey Terry, i love many white males including you. I need to stop writing those posts and saying those things in ways that make ppl feel i am talking about them particularly. I will find a way. I came close to making it easier for ppl to listen with my unbearable whiteness post.

      But i agree w u. If we stopped at every single word we would end up silenced. I am the type of impulsive person not only in speech (remember when u called me out on saying “liberal” in the hangout?) but also writing (tweets especially). I forgive myself for what comes out that can be misunderstood and am willing to apologize if i offend someone. The key as u said is just to be open to someone asking what we mean or letting us know how they heard it. This can sometimes make us realize we are lightyears apart and other times can bring us closer so we don’t need to clarify every time. Because we know each other better, in our essence (whatever that means) even when we don’t fully understand each others context.
      So if it helps i am not at all calling for self-censorship but the willingness to engage to better understand each other and not assume another intends offense or deliberately doesn’t want to understand. U know what i mean?
      The tribalism comment. The general thrust of the argument was to avoid racism and she explained to me after my question. It helps her, tho, i hope, to recognize that her argument didn’t need the polygamy angle because that one is much closer to home as the US already has many Mormons and Muslims. You know what I mean? By using tribalism she exoticized something that isn’t actually exotic at all because it exists right in front of her eyes (the ppl w religious permission to marry multiple wives in the case of Mormons and Muslims).

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