MY wife says I'm a good listener. I don't know... perhaps I am, for she has never had occasion to say, "Listen! Listen! Listen!" Come to think of it, she has never had occasion to say, "Let me speak... let me speak... let me speak" either. But then again, as most husbands know, the wife doesn't need to ask to speak.
What she doesn't know, and what every experienced husband knows, is that silence is the better part of valour. I know, I know, the idiom is "Discretion is the better part of valour". But, trust me, this is nearer the truth.
I think the guy who coined that idiom must have been a bachelor. You can never be too careful if you want to avoid trouble.
Especially these days when technology brings even simple gestures -- such as Michelle Obama rolling her eyes at a lunch following the inauguration of her husband Barack as President of the United States for a second term -- onto the TV or computer screen, and when uploading a video onto YouTube is rather simple, except, perhaps, if you are over 40.
You can become famous or infamous in an instant, as Universiti Utara Malaysia law student Bawani KS and Suara Wanita 1Malaysia president Sharifah Zohrah Jabeen Syed Shah Miskin have discovered. Much has been said, and is being said, about the exchange that took place between the two at a forum at UUM last month, a video of which was uploaded onto YouTube recently. I must say some of the parodies on YouTube demonstrate that Malaysians are remarkably creative.
There is no harm in enjoying a laugh, or even stating our opposition to something said or done, but we should observe propriety. We should be able to laugh at our foibles, but without being mean.
While I am concerned about what is happening in universities, I must say my regard for Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah continues to soar. He is certainly one of the most level-headed leaders we have.
Saifuddin comes across as someone willing to listen. And listening, I am convinced after years of covering incidents and talking to people as a journalist, is the bedrock of all relationships.
Why do you think the number of divorces is increasing? Listen to Beyonce's song Listen to get an idea. If those who have quarrelled with someone or other were to trace the cause, they are very likely to discover that it was due to an unwillingness to listen or a deficiency in listening skills. Most of the conflicts in the world are the cumulative result of someone or other not listening or being unwilling to listen.
This trait of being willing to listen is especially crucial in those who are leaders -- whether in the family, a firm, a university, an organisation or a nation. Unless you are willing to listen, or are able to listen well, you cannot understand what the other needs or wants.
In a multiracial, multireligious nation, the willingness to listen to the voices of the different groups becomes even more important.
To hear, of course, is not to listen. Hearing requires no effort; listening involves paying attention and attempting to understand.
Why don't people listen? Often it is due to ego -- I am more important than him; my group is superior to his group. At other times it is due to fear -- what if he says something and I don't know how to handle it? What if he asks too much? What will people (or my supporters or co-religionists) think of me if I were to compromise? Sometimes, of course it is a sheer lack of listening skills.
For students, success is yoked to their desire and ability to listen; for employees, upward mobility hinges on how well they listen; for employers, industrial harmony results from attentive listening; for parents and children, family concord is constructed on a willingness to listen.
And, listen, the number of friends you have will rise in tandem with how good a listener you are. Have you ever wondered why the "t" in "listen" is silent? The grammar books say that it was spelled "hlysnan" in Old English and had no "t" but that it acquired the "t" following its association with the word "list", which was once its synonym.
Let me tell you my theory: The silent "t" in the centre is to remind us that silence is central to listening.
My father once told me about the significance of silence. He was one of those fortunate enough to sit in the presence of one of the greatest sages of this era, Ramana Maharishi, in Tiruvannamalai, India.
My father said: "The Maharishi would just smile into empty space, looking into the distance. He hardly said anything on the few occasions I was there with many others. But there was something powerful in his silence. You wanted to be there, to feel his presence, to be infected with his inner peace.
He conveyed spirituality in silence."
Our problem, of course, is that we don't listen. Or don't listen enough.
Do you know that both "silent" and "listen" have the same letters? Now you know why husbands tend to remain silent when the wife is talking -- they are listening. And you thought they were dozing off.
The word "silence", by the way, was the most popular word among my teachers in primary school. Or was it "listen"? But none of us ever had the guts to say, "Let me speak" or what we really wanted to do, "Let me play".
Uh, listen, I see my boss walking towards me. Is he unhappy with my column? Boss, please, let me write...let me write...let me write.
"Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence." -- Robert Frost
A. Kathirasen | email@example.com has been a journalist with the NST for 32 years. New Straits Times Columnist 24 January 2013