February 11, 2014

Here are five signs that your boss — specifically your editor — isn’t listening to you:

  1. Looking over your shoulder for the next person to enter the room
  2. Looking at his watch
  3. Checking her cell phone
  4. Staring at a computer screen while talking over his shoulder
  5. Interrupting you to run off to another meeting

Been there, seen all of the above.

We’re familiar with the signs of someone who’s not listening. But what does listening — on those rare occasions it occurs — look like and sound like?

You heard it here first: It sounds like a Danish woman.

That realization first struck me about 20 years at a seaside bar in St. Pete Beach. A Danish woman — her first name was Dorthe — had traveled a long way to interview me. She was a professional journalist working with students and flew to Florida to check out some of my experiments with young writers. As I answered her questions, something strange began to happen.

She began to gasp.

It might have gone something like this:

Me: In my writing classes, the students create the texts that we study.

Dorthe: [gasp]

Me: I teach kids to read, write, and talk about their reading and writing.

Dorthe: [gasp]

It went on and on until I began to flatter myself: Roy, you are so special. You are taking this woman’s breath away!

More technically, I would describe Dorthe’s gasp as a sharp, audible intake of breath, delivered not randomly, but at moments of acknowledgment or affirmation. I found it wonderfully idiosyncratic and charming, a sign that Dorthe was listening to my great ideas.

Over the years, I worked with Scandinavian journalists at more than a dozen week-long seminars at Poynter and during workshops in Copenhagen and Aarhus. And guess what? Dorthe’s gasp wasn’t idiosyncratic at all. I experienced it over and over again, almost always from Scandinavian listeners, most of whom were women.

When I called this move to their attention, the Danes looked puzzled. Then, when I caught them in the act, they said it was unconscious.

“We do it all the time,” a woman told me. “We are just not aware that we are doing it.”

At a recent Poynter seminar on “Coaching and Creating Great Long-Form Journalism,” I had the chance to work with 15 Scandinavian journalists and watch them in action. When we began to exchange ideas about the signs of listening, I brought up the Danish gasp and told them I’d discovered it had a name.

“In linguistic circles,” I said, “it’s known as the ‘pulmonic ingressive,’ known popularly as ‘the Scandinavian nod.’ ” (I had Googled “Danish speaker sharp intake of air.”)

It turns out the pulmonic ingressive exists in many cultures, but is most commonly known as an attribute of Scandinavian speakers, especially women. Let’s break down the technical term. The move is called “pulmonic” because air is sucked into the lungs, and “ingressive” because of the passage of air into the vocal tract. The nickname — the Scandinavian nod — affirms that the sound is made to express something positive about the listener’s response to the speaker. While it can mean “I agree with you,” it can also mean “I’m hearing you,” “That interests me,” or “Tell me more about that.”

According to the scholarship, such reactions are “paralinguistic,” that is, sounds other than words that enhance the meaning of a communication, the way I use “hmm” or “uh-huh.” Another phrase to describe such responses is “back-channeling,” which describes all the symbolic gestures of communication other than direct language.

It is in the act of coaching that all of this carries practical weight. I would argue, for example, that when writers approach editors to pitch a story idea, a lead, or a draft, they are looking for one sign in return: reflected enthusiasm. When we don’t get it, when we see the editor look at his watch, doubt begins to set in.

In a beautiful piece of hyperbole, the great writing coach Donald Murray once described listening as “an unnatural act.” That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to learn. I’ve learned, for example, that listening can surface some gender differences. As a man, I assume that I can listen and read the newspaper at the same time. But as a husband and father of three daughters, I’ve learned that the women in my life demand evidence that I’m listening. They want me to put aside the newspaper or click off the television or not answer my smartphone. It helps when I look them in the eye, lean forward, and repeat the key things they are telling me — all signs of my full attention.

I’m not sure I can pull off an authentic pulmonic ingressive. But I know how to listen — and how to nod.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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