When you can’t hear what you’re being told

I recently accompanied my mother to an appointment with a neurologist. My mother was nervous about this medical interface. As a woman who taught herself English, she has never been one to enjoy the onslaught of perceived and actual filters that go up when the listening ear of the dominant culture hears an accent. She has always managed and done so with a stunning amount of grace and good humor, but this was different. It wasn’t just forms and questions. She was worried about what this bundle of forms and minutes might reveal that maybe she just didn’t want to know.


We filled out paperwork, and my mother, brother and I then sat in the examination room for about an hour, waiting for the specialist to come in. The waiting is part of the story, not a judgment about the specialist as I have no idea what she was doing. It was probably justified; let’s imagine that to be the case. The point here is that the waiting is part of the interactions that came after. Anxiety usually doesn’t quell when one is already trepidatious about an impending interaction, and this morning was no exception.


The physician came in, shook all our hands, and proceeded to ask my mother a series of questions to try to understand the nature and frequency of the headaches she’d been experiencing. When did they start? How often do you get them? Do they get worse if you’re doing anything in particular? All good and normal questions. All necessary to ascertain, in rough form, as best as medicine can attempt, if there are any meaningful correlations.


The neurologist asked my mother, “It sounds like you’re getting the headaches a lot. Is that right?”


My mother replied, “Yes, it’s quite a lot,” then paused and said, “but it’s not too bad.”


The physician looked up from her clipboard.


“Yes, a lot? But not too bad? Ok,” and she smiled a little bit, wryly, perhaps to denote that this was an added wrinkle for her physician’s work. She was subtly but perceptibly frustrated. That on top of all she had to summon about neurology, clinical trials, and pharmacology, she was now wrestling with a less than straightforward answer from, this, sure very sweet, but in this moment rather confusing elderly woman. Which one was it? A lot or not too bad? It’s not enough to deal with a medical practice already confounded by insurance-fueled inflation of prices, patients who merely want a pill, and the crush of time/profit margin. Now she was supposed to tease out the truth from an apparently contradictory sentence? These contexts are undeniably frustrating.  And while I imagined them to be part of what was in her wry smile, they don’t negate her inability to hear my mother’s response. Just as my mother’s twinned responses didn’t negate them simultaneously being true.


Of course, my mama’s response made perfect sense to me. To my ears, ears that know how to hear her, not just listen to her but to hear her, it was crystal clear. She was saying that she had been in pain and then editing her needs because most of her life, she had been told to do exactly that revising. Raised in a deeply patriarchal although still very loving family, my mother learned before, and with unerring force after she was married, that her role was to acquiesce her needs to lots of others, but most consistently to those of her husband. His pain came first, even if hers was empirically bigger. This isn’t a feature necessarily of some cultures and not others, or stories of migration. Patriarchy is too big and too long for that partitioning. There are myriad lived realities that are marked by this seconding of needs and desires. And lest we forget, the woman had been already nervous and then waiting for 50 minutes looking at the tissue paper on the examination table, the large computer on the desk, and the single cheery yet sad poster tacked on the wall about flu season.


Pain can be both arduous and not that bad at all. Our needs can be primary in one minute and then in the next we might apologize for having them in the first place. Time need not even separate these sensations. The issue arises when we have erroneously expected that a single answer or a single experience of a phenomenon is a correct one, or a true one, or a valid one.


But because we think listening is a simple act of hearing sounds that represent static phenomena, triangulated to some inherent truth, it is possible to hear next to nothing when we are being told volumes. We often hear our own frustration or peal for that just right question and miss the entire story we’re being told. Professionals of all backgrounds come by this miseducation and, I would aver, malpractice, quite honestly. In most every social science field, research methodology is taught as the learning of techniques to determine what kind of a case is x, locate several sources of data in the interest of triangulating them, and build internal and external validity. We communicate with deep and wide curricula that research is about the execution of accepted techniques. Lauren Berlant has written beautifully on this miseducation, questioning how, in our zeal to determine that x is a case of a thing, we miss how we are actively constructing limits of that very thing. We confuse our consistent parameters of x for the ways that x eludes us.


This vaulting of consistency as truth is no way unique or contained to the academy. Recent years have seen a resurgence of real-crime dramas, including both seasons of the podcast, Serial, and Netflix’s Making of a Murderer. Online fora dissect this and that detail. There is often a centrifugal force around the consistency of the accused’s statements. It boils down  to how a friend used to ask of his criminal defense clients when their answers differed, “Were you lying then, or are you lying now?” Sure, people lie and wax inconsistent to evade consequences but what if neither instance was a lie? What if memory, perception, and narrative are actually exponentially more complex than our simplistic binary rubrics deem them to be? What if this physician’s frustration was both justified about her work life constraints and offensive for its raciolinguistic disciplining?


Because I understand research to be a cultural practice, one that is imbued with political economies of status, knowledge-for projects, and property rights in settler societies, I am dubious about research as execution of technique. Knowledge is much messier and unrulier than that. This is, I suspect, more than annoying for many of my students. Many, quite understandably, often just want to know how to better phrase an interview question. Of course, many others are in touch with the feeling of not being heard when they’ve answered the question that a teacher, administrator, doctor, social worker, admissions officer, etc. has asked them. They’ve answered the question plain as day, but they continue to be asked the question. It makes a person look around and wonder, “am I not saying it right?”


The thing is, just because you can think of a question, doesn’t mean you get to ask it. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you can hear the answer.



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