It starts benignly enough. Someone upstairs calls something down to you. You hear a voice, but not the words. You call back, “I can’t hear you.” The voice repeats what they said, louder, but not loud enough. Once more, you reply, “I can’t hear you.” At this point, they stomp halfway down the stairs to yell whatever it was they were trying to tell you. And now they’re mad at you, the innocent bystander.
Having been both the shouter and the shoutee, I can attest to how frustrating it is to have to keep repeating yourself. By the second or third time you’ve said your piece, you don’t care what the answer is, but the person you’re shouting at can’t hear your never mind any more than they heard the original question.
These interactions are rarely based on anything of substance. Sometimes it’s a question like, “Do you know if…” or, “Have you seen my…” But it’s never as important as, “The house is on fire.”
When I was pregnant, we took a class on administering CPR to a baby. Here’s what I remember from the class. In an emergency, do not call for your spouse by name, yell “HELP.” If you call your spouse’s name, they will typically respond, “What?” That will waste precious time. If, however, you holler for help, they will fly to your side to see what’s wrong. (Do not use this method if what you want is help opening a jar. We all know what happened to the boy who cried wolf.)
It’s possible that we get bent out of shape when someone says, “I can’t hear you,” because our inner child immediately suspects there is a taunt implicit in the reply. They interpret the response to mean, “I’m willfully not listening to you.” If so, we need to tell our inner child to chill and let the adults handle things.
It could be that the person who says, “I can’t hear you,” means, “This is going to end badly for me. If you want to talk to me, come closer.” Maybe they would actually say that if they thought you could hear them.
It can be just as hard to hear outdoors. For instance, when you are cross-country skiing, everything you say to the person in front of you falls onto the ground unheard. If the person in front turns their head to say something, you may catch the first few words, but when they turn their head away you’ll have no idea how the sentence ends. If you call, “I can’t hear you,” you’re off to the races.
The next time someone calls to me and I can’t make out what they’re saying, I’m not going to answer. The worst case scenario is that they’ll think I’m ignoring them, and they’ll get mad, which is where we’d end up anyway. Or, they’ll figure out that I can’t hear them and give up. If they really need my attention, eventually they’ll bring their question to me. I’ll be happy to help, and we’ll all have fewer psychic scars.
I think 90% of the time the shoutee hears what the shouter has said… they just haven’t taken the time to digest it, or they don’t want to. My mother does this ALL THE TIME and even my dad commented on it. When I asked her if she could try and digest and answer instead of “what?”, her response was, “I’m old. I can’t change now.” So now I’m so sick of repeating myself, I just say “forget it” which gets her pissed off and she answers the question about a minute later. 🙂
LOL! You are awesome… and too far. Please move to Burlington?
Excellent capture of American life in the suburbs! When we went from living on one floor to three, we changed the phone system to one with a built-in intercom. While it cuts stair fights in half and makes it easier to call folks to dinner, it’s still always Mom’s fault when a shirt can’t be found or we’re going to be late for the movies. Where’s the machine to change that!
What a perfect description of this problem!!!! Ha! I love it when a writer (you) puts into words something I experience but never, well, put into words…
I thought it was just me. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one to get frustrated on both sides of this problem.
Good tip about “help” for an emergency.
I’m going to try your method and ignore next time. But what should I do if the person just calls me? Just keep saying the person’s name over and over? ; )
Little do you know, the house has actually been on fire SEVERAL times. But you, being upstairs with your noisy heater on, just couldn’t hear me 😉