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The Importance of Saying Uh-huh...
Joanne Sales –June 2010

We had a major communication breakdown at our house last April. We love having international visitors, but these three visitors were not from a different continent – they were from a different planet. After three weeks of misery, I figured out what the problem was. They had learned good English, but they didn’t know how to say, “uh-huh.”

In North America, when someone is talking to us, we look at them. We grunt and make sounds that show that we are listening. Uh–huh. Yeah. Huh? Eh? All of these guttural punctuation marks mean, “Yes, I hear you. I’m here.” In India, they wobble the head. In Japan, there is a gentle vocal ascent.

I didn’t realize how much the happiness of my day depended on those vocal grunts and groans – until they were gone! But for three weeks, at our kitchen table, when I would talk, these three visitors didn’t say or do anything. Sometimes they would stare at me, more often they would stare at their eggs. I tried staring at my eggs. It didn’t help.

Years ago, the first time I was in a gym, I was riding a stationary bike, and having a great time watching my heart rate. I pedaled harder to watch it rise. Suddenly, there was no heart rate. The machine said zero. My first thought was – Oh no, am I dead?

Well, after a couple weeks of dead end conversation with our unresponsive guests, I had the same thought. Am I dead? Am I alone in an imaginary kitchen? Are these people puppets? I like peaceful silence, but I don’t like tension. The failure to communicate created all kinds of undercover resentments. Without the customary sounds of human interaction, I felt like they were giving me the cold shoulder - which they were. I was sure they didn’t like me - which they didn’t. I was not having fun.

This situation made me realize that simple communication skills, and agreement on method, are critical. On this small planet, lack of agreement can be life threatening.

A conversation is a two-way interaction, even when only one person is speaking. We need a response to feel safe, to feel support, to explore new ground. The word responsibility is made up of two parts: response and ability. Responsibility is the ability to respond. To listen, notice, be aware – and make a response. Scientists consider the ability to respond to be a sign of life. Psychologists consider it a sign of a lasting marriage.

At the University of Washington, by studying the vocal and visual cues of newlyweds, researchers became quite adept at being able to predict which marriages would last, from only a few minutes of videotape.
“In one study, we were watching newlyweds, and what often happened with the couples who ended up in divorce is that when a partner would ask for the credit, the other spouse wouldn’t give it… When you nod and say ‘uh-huh’ or ‘yeah,’ you are doing that as a sign of support.” The woman in that doomed marriage never gave any signs of support.*

Our doomed relationship with our guests didn’t end up in divorce, but I did end up in prolific tears. It was only after that embarrassing public display, that I realized the problem. So on the last day, I drew the woman aside – for they were not bad people. As she going to be visiting Canada for a year, I thought she might want to learn a new word in English.

The word, I said, is ‘uh-huh.’ We use that word (or one like it) to show that we’re listening, that we’re interested. It’s kind of like a dog wagging its tail. It means, “I’m friendly. Don’t worry.”

We humans are always communicating - thoughts, feelings, information and attitudes. ‘Vibrations’ was the word of choice in the 60s – good vibes or bad vibes. We are thought and feeling transmitters – and we can’t turn ourselves off. We’re always transmitting something… even when we’re doing nothing… even when we are simply perceiving.

In the movie Avatar, the highest respect shown to another person was to say, “I see you.” So, let me take this moment to say to those of you who read this column, thanks for being there! “I see you.”

* Blink, Malcolm Gladwell, p25.