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
“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.