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Random Thoughts
NECC (Haverhill) Professor, Mark Palermo

Have you noticed that nowadays while people spend more time talking to each other, they have less to say? Could tech-nology be at the root of the problem? Is emotional isolation the defining spirit of our times? 

John Steinbeck wrote that the curse of civilization is that modern man knows more about the workings of the internal combustion engine than the workings of a woman. But evidence for social ills points to a breakdown in communication - and nowadays women are at fault too.

Religion doesn’t help much. While most people agree that what most brings people together is love, forgiveness and understanding, that which separates them more than anything else is religion. Thomas Merton once asked, “Who has less to say than the mass mind?”

So more communication is what we need. Sounds easy. But didn’t Neville Chamberlain try to communicate with Hitler at the Munich Pact? The attempt ob-viously didn’t work. And so we face the question of not only whom we want to com-municate with, but what we wish to communicate. “Now Maine Can Talk to Florida” proclaimed the New York Times headlines upon the completion of an inter-state telegraph system. To which somebody asked the rhetorical question: “But Does Maine Have Anything to Say to Florida?”

Have you ever been talked at, instead of talked to?  Someone tries to overpower you, dominating the conversation with a monologue, a torrent of words so relentless, you can break in only when they pause for breath. If you do manage to get a word in, they don’t pay attention because they are too focused on what they want to say next. It’s hard work talking to these folks. A conversation is two or more people expressing and responding to each other’s ideas. Something special happens when people take time, and give space to listen with full attention. And then speak to what the other really said.

Conversation was once regarded as an art. The tradition of salons in France,  tertullias  in Spain, the cafes and coffee houses of Europe, conversation was, and still is, a national pastime for Europeans. They take time for the important things of life (which is why they have five and six weeks of vacation time). In U.S., where pragmatism and efficiency rule, communication is often seen as superfluous and “for informational purposes only.”

A few years ago, a series of speakers addressed  a college faculty group. After two hours of boring, self-serving speeches, I joked to a colleague seated next to me, “They’re killing us.”  She laughed, but I wondered if my blood pressure was getting dangerously low. Not since high school had I been so deathly bored. Then a woman took the podium. Just back from a hospital stay where she had been gravely ill, she spoke from the heart about her gratitude for the visits and letters she had received from the faculty.

I felt my attention being drawn in spite of myself. I sat up. I noticed a crisp energy in the room. My head started to clear, and everyone was now sitting upright. Her speech was neither brilliant nor clever, but it came out deep and sincere. The room had come alive. When she finished, another speaker took the podium, at which time I felt myself de-scending back into the same low energy funk.

Energizing speech comes from the heart, which cannot be accessed when we wear masks, as we often must do, especially at work. I spoke with my colleague about my observation afterwards and we agreed that some people are always in that special inner place when they speak and listen, and as a result, their words have weight and resonance. The Gettysburg Address was one of the most eloquent speeches in the English language, yet Edward Everett, who had also spoken at Gettysburg that day, wrote that Lincoln had said in two minutes what he had tried to say in two hours. With words, sometimes less is better.

Which reminds me of a political speech at the Haverhill stadium in the early 1990’s. My stepdaughter was graduating from high school. The weather that June day was insufferably humid. People in the stands were drenched in sweat. We endured five or six  pompous, inflated speeches as a prelude to the major event, which was to be another speech by Mayor Ted Pelosi. The stadium felt like a sauna.

The mayor finally got up to the podium. I looked at my watch. “My speech today is about…” and then he paused. “BREVITY!” He laughed and then said with the most soulful sincerity, “Good luck kids… have a great life.” Then he turned on his heels and walked off the stage. The audience paused, dumbfounded, and then erupted into a thundering applause. In that moment the mayor had seen us not as objects of his mind, but as subjects of the heart- as human beings who were uncomfortable.  The Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, wrote about this distinction in his treatise on communication titled “I and Thou.”

Before we can fix this country, we will have to learn once again how to talk to one another.

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Prior Columns by Mark Palermo