It has become far too familiar--that gnawing feeling I get in my gut when I realize that the person sitting across from me, the one I have been speaking with for the last twenty minutes or so, really couldn't care less about anything having to do with me or my world. You know it’s happening when you can’t get a word in edge-wise, or after you’ve listened to the other person ad infinitum and they don't even show a feigned interest in uttering one solitary question about you or your state of being.
Traveling to an island off the Korean coast recently, we were waiting for our flight at the local airport. Sitting in a quiet and nearly empty area we saw a man approaching us with an unmistakable missionary zeal in his step. Mr. Kim--his name we soon came to learn--was a man on a quest. He was interested in telling us about the well-worn book in his hand, his heralded professional career, his home on the island, his hobby, his grand-children, and so on. After 15 minutes or so it became apparent that we might be spending the rest of the afternoon with our new friend. Luckily, he was about to board the only other flight departing Daegu that afternoon.
Mr. Kim, proud man that he was, meant no harm. But neither was he one bit interested in us. In less that a quarter of an hour, I knew more about Mr. Kim than I do about any of my students, or most of my colleagues for that matter. Simply speaking, Mr. Kim, was not interested—and of course, that is his prerogative.
But my preference--should anyone be interested--is to spend my precious interpersonal time with people who are both interesting and interested. Look, we’re living in a world where these things increasingly matter. In a recent Atlantic article, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” Stephen Marche notes that “We never have been more detached from one another, or lonelier. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society.”
From here on out, I’ll take my actual interpersonal encounters with a double shot of two-way conversation, a tablespoon of genuine empathy and a side of listening. I want to be in the presence of people who are both interesting and interested—to “meet me in the middle,” as James Taylor says in his song “Caroline I See You,” a place where together we can “melt like chocolate. “
Statue, Yeungnam University