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Man Listening

If Judaism had a central anthem, mantra, or creed*, it might very well be the prayer which begins with Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad. While many people focus on theology of God's oneness here, I think that the very first word - Shema /Listen is even more important! Just imagine your life, or your day, with no one really making the effort to listen well, with love, and with caring. Listening is the glue of any healthy community and relationship. The lack of it, its demise.

Consequently, as a former therapist and now Rabbi, I have spent a lot of time learning how to do it well. If your world is falling apart, if you need to scream or rage, or even sit in silence, I'm your guy! I won't try to solve or fix anything, unless you explicitly tell me that you want that. I can just be there with you, holding your hand.

However, the reality is, most of life doesn't play out in my therapist's or Rabbi's office, most of life is everything that happens in between. In personal relationships, or in groups, in meetings or casual conversations with friends, knowing when and how to listen is incomparably more complex than when I'm in one of those professional roles one-on-one and my job is to listen, and only listen.

I want to focus on one aspect of that here, and that is, how gender socialization effects the way in which we all take up space, speak and listen. So here are some things that I, and my guess is many men, take for granted*:

1. We, men, can easily dominate conversations without being judged. Women are perceived as “too talkative” even when they’re speaking less, with one study showing that women need to make up 60-80% of a group to have equal time in a conversation.

2. We, men, are less likely to be interrupted when we speak – studies of men and women showed that both interrupted women more than men.

3. People are much more likely to assume we know what we're talking (and we assume that about ourselves), regardless to our actual level or expertise in a subject. We are not subject to mansplaining.

4. We’re not expected to swear less, apologize more, or other supposedly “lady-like” behaviors that reflect stereotypes of our gender expected to be submissive.

5. Social norms allow us men to take up more physical space.

6. Perceptions of how much our gender is represented skew in our favor. When a group is comprised of 17% women, men think it’s 50-50, and at 33%, men believe women are the majority.

7. We, men, are less likely to have strangers expect you to smile – it’s so common for women that it’s sparked a widely praised art project called “Stop Telling Women to Smile.”

While I'm fortunate to know many women and trans folks who are incomparably more powerful, thoughtful, and eloquent speakers than I, their experiences and journeys towards having their voices heard are simply harder in one powerful way than mine. Gender. When I open my mouth and people listen, I hope that it's because I have something engaging to say, but as I grow older and pay more attention, I realize that's not the only reason. I, and we all, live within a long history of socialization which prioritizes and respects the voices of men. While in some places and periods in history women were literally not allowed to speak (or sing) in public, all of this still plays out today.

When we men take up all the time and oxygen there is to talk, we are not just being disrespectful and hurtful, we are missing out on the power of everything that the women and trans folks in the room have to say!

I noticed these things in a different way along my Pilgrimage this past summer. Among all the families who graciously gave me a place to stay along the way, guess whether who most often dominated the conversation (other than me). It was most often, though not always men.

I also get to practice this a lot as I settle in to a new place and get to know Metro-Detroit. In any given meeting, regardless of how progressive the community I am in, guess who is usually first and second to speak in a meeting. Guess who is actually doing more of the listening. Guess who is more often interrupted.

So I have the privilege and responsibility to practice listening more. My mind says, "But, but, but... I have to share this!" or, "But I know something important, and no one else knows this or saying it, and, and..." It's only when I put these things to writing to they sound childishly egotistical. A beautiful and amazing thing is happening when I take a step or two back. First, the other people in the room start to seem much more interesting and smart. The less I talk, the more time there is for me to hear their wisdom. Naturally, no one dies from hearing less later in the meeting. Without my interjections, certain conversations are much faster, or they take a completely different and important turn than I wanted to at the very moment when I had something I thought was vital to say.

Of course gender socialization is one of many factors to influence these things. These power dynamics play out across race, and class, and ability, and more and more. I had a particularly powerful chance to realize this in another way when I joined the Black 2 Justice Transition Training, a Black led group of Climate Justice activists last weekend. Knowing that this training was specifically led by and for black folks, and that my role there was to be an ally, listen, and learn. Given that my role was that clear, this is the kind of context where I know how to listen well. At the same time, I am working on transferring it to my every day life. I'm noticing more and more some powerful habits, such as: getting in the way of people's conversations by explaining/translating what one person is saying to another (psychologists call this triangulation), interjecting with arguments before people have finished explaining their full trains of thought, speaking before I'm actually clear on what I want to say or whether my great idea needs to be heard at that specific juncture in the meeting, etc. None of these are terrible, and some are quite constructive, in some situations. However, they're also expressions of male privilege and destructive when they're simply my default.

My dear male friends, we are missing out by living on autopilot in the way society expects us to. It's not just an issue of gender equity and justice, but complete selfishness. We miss out on the wisdom of other people around us when don't make sure everyone else in the room has a chance to share, and talk. Just experiment. What happens to the conversation when you/we me are not the first, second, and third to speak in any given situation? What's it like to hold our tongues past the initial discomfort, and hear more of the voices around us? In what way do you habitually speak and and take up space in a room that used to feel constructive, but might actually not be anymore?

I used to think I was a good listener... but I'm realizing that to do that well as a man means that I not only need to learn how to be quiet, but to also deconstruct and deprogram myself from much of what society has taught me about about gender norms. The upside is: I get to hear and learn even more from the people around me, I'm learning to be more okay with silence, and am even more often happily surprised.

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