Signals Lead to Earplugs

Kate Murphy and the Difference between Person and Persona

Ethan Richardson / 2.10.20

In the office we recently ordered Kate Murphy’s You’re Not Listening. Murphy, a journalist based in Houston, is good at her job because she is good at listening, and has basically written a book about the lessons she’s learned in the field—what makes for a good listener, why pretend listening is so easy to sniff out, and why real listening is so hard, particularly today. While there is no shortage of answers to that last question, Murphy says one reason we miss the opportunities for connection is because the signals get in the way. Everyone knows what it feels like to make the acquaintance of someone who you’ve already decided—via their T-shirt—has a personality disorder. It’s not that we misjudge their signals: signals are by definition hard to confuse, and communicate something near and dear to the signaler. But signals distract. What are signals, Murphy asks, if not attempts to justify ourselves in a crowd, to claim, sometimes brazenly, our belonging in some group over another?

It is a natural law that whatever is being signaled—ideology, financial clout, wit—is covering over some more honest, more human, and therefore more connection-worthy facts about the person behind it. And while there are zillions more teams and tribes with whom we may affiliate today, the signals we see projected wind up preventing the genuine listening—and true acceptance—we all crave.

In more primitive times, social signaling might have been chest beating or hanging a large number of animal pelts outside the family cave. Social identification might have been affiliation with a certain tribe. Today, we gauge social status based on signals like the cars people drive, clothes they wear, schools they attended, or, as is increasingly the case, we judge people by their identification with an ideological faction…

There is an inverse relationship between signaling and listening. Say you see someone wearing a VEGANS MAKE BETTER LOVERS T-shirt or driving a truck with an NRA bumper sticker. You may feel that’s all you need to know about either person. It’s also fair to say that they may be so invested in those identities that it does tell you a lot. But it’s important to remember that what you know is a persona and not a person, and there’s a big difference. There’s more than you can imagine below the surface. 

In the past, it was more likely insecure teenagers who would resort to in-your-face signaling to establish identity and group affiliation… But today, it’s a more widespread phenomenon. In our increasingly disconnected society, people have gotten notably more conspicuous and vocal about their affiliation—particularly their political and ideological affiliations—in an effort to quickly establish loyalties and rapport. These affiliations provide a sense of belonging and also the kind of guiding principles once provided by organized religions, which have correspondingly been losing adherents. Moreover, when people feel insecure or isolated, they tend to overdramatize and espouse more extreme views to get attention.

Of course, social media is custom-made for signaling. Showing that you follow certain individuals or organizations or retweeting or liking messages or images signals values and cool factor. Who needs to listen to people when you can just Google them? A Facebook page, Instagram feed, or LinkedIn profile, the thinking goes, tells you all you need to know. And yet, this is precisely why people may be reluctant to give their surnames upon meeting someone new, fearing that person will do the digital equivalent of going through their dresser drawers instead of getting to know them more organically. In dating situations, divulging your last name is now seen as a significant turning point in the relationship. The delay reflects a yearning to be known more deeply and individually first; to not be judged by posts, tweets, and other signals—which, after all, are not really accurate portrayals.

In T.S. Eliot’s 1915 poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” he laments the need to “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” Listening is how you discover the person behind the “face” (or Facebook profile). It allows you to get beyond the superficial signaling and learn more about who the person really is—their simple pleasures and what keeps them up at night… It’s all too easy to get complacent about how well you know those closest to you, just as it’s hard not to make assumptions about strangers based on stereotypes, particularly when reinforced by that person’s own overt social signaling. But listening keeps you from falling into those traps. Listening will overturn your expectations.