The Importance of Listening

When I was fairly young, my family picked up roots and moved from New Jersey to Ohio. As a six-year-old, it was quite a culture shock. I remember how much more slowly people talked in the great Mid-West, how polite they were, and how they had funny names for things, such as calling soda by the name “pop.”

Those half-dozen years in the Garden State were enough to indoctrinate me to the speaking habits of the region, and I remember in our new home fumbling with the fact that I spoke at a quicker rate than my classmates and the neighborhood kids. It wasn’t that they were slow, but rather that they just talked that way. Looking back, I realize that I probably cut off some conversations during pauses, because the delay between words was long enough that it seemed to signal a completed thought.

Seven years later, we found ourselves packing everything up and moving back to central Jersey, close again to our extended family and to a new business that my father had started up with some others in his industry. Seven years in the land of fields of corn and dairy, of Cincinnati Reds and riverboats, and I picked up some of the customs of my midwestern environment.

Returning to New Jersey meant experiencing a culture shock in reverse, where my classmates and neighbors talked much quicker than I did, and interrupted me when I talked. It wasn’t that I was slow, but rather that I just talked that way. I knew better than to ask for “pop” at the local pizzeria, cause they more likely might have tried to help me find my dad than giving me a Soda.

That’s part of the fun, and part of the challenge of traveling to new places, understanding that there are subtle differences in how we speak, how we refer to things, and it makes listening and understanding a challenge sometimes. It’s even more of a challenge interacting with people in other parts of the world, who may share a language with us, but possess a very different set of cultural references.

I was thinking about those days when we lived in Ohio, and how we would drive back to New Jersey during the summers and winters to visit Grandparents and Aunts and Uncles and cousins and friends. On one trip, we stopped halfway in Pennsylvania to visit one of my father’s potential clients at an old toy factory.

He went inside the plant and talked with them for what seemed like hours at the time. When he came out, and we resumed our journey to New Jersey, he told us that they had told him of their plans for a new toy, and wanted to know if one of the industrial machines his company made could help them manufacture one of the parts for the toy. He suggested to them that they make the whole toy using one of his machines (or at least most of it), and they listened.

A few weeks before Christmas that year, a big delivery truck pulled up to our house, and a huge box was unloaded and delivered to our door. Inside was a thank you consisting of almost every toy that Pennsylvania company we had visited had made.

The Big Wheel went on to become one of the most popular toys in the United States for more than a decade. It wouldn’t have been the same if only the tires were made out of plastic.

There can be a value to listening, to being aware of cultural and personal differences in communication styles, to taking feedback from potential customers and vendors and others. That value can mean innovation in business, or in making the new kid feel welcome in the neighborhood.

Are you listening?


Author: Bill Slawski

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