I’m pickin’ up good vibrations
(Good good good good vibrations)
Picking up good vibrations. Hmmm. Love the song, but I suspect the phrase is a bit dated. If I used it in front of my kids, I’m convinced I’ll get their special “Can-we-pretend-he’s-not-with-us?” look. So I won’t use the phrase in front of them.
You know something? Apparently chillies have no such reservations. They’ve been happily picking up good vibrations from neighbouring plants for millennia. Or so some scientists think. I quote:
In the new study, Gagliano and her colleague Michael Renton showed that chili plants sprouted faster and were healthier, compared with those grown in isolation, when they were grown next to “good neighbors,” such as basil, that help inhibit weed growth and pests.
Remarkably, the scientists got the same result even when the plants were separated by black plastic so that they could not exchange light or chemical signals.
Somehow, the chili seedlings could tell what kinds of plants their neighbors were and respond accordingly. Gagliano speculates that the answer involves acoustic vibrations generated—either intentionally or not—inside plant cells.
Good vibrations indeed.
So “seedlings could tell what kinds of plants their neighbours were and respond accordingly”. Reading that, I wandered into a quiet daze thinking about human beings and how we listen (or not). That wandering led to this post. Now you know.
I started, lazily, with comparing myself to a chilli plant. “Can I tell what kinds of plants my neighbours are, and respond accordingly?” And that started me down the track of examining the hows and whats of my own listening habits.
I listen to protect against danger. Even today, 55 years+ on from birth, I react to strange or unfamiliar sounds, particularly when they’re loud as well. I’m told that it’s common amongst humans, and can be traced back all the way to Savannah Man. The crash of glass falling and breaking, dropped plates smashing, cars throttling, dogs growling, someone screaming; rarely (since I live in the UK) the sound of a gunshot. But for sure I’m sensitive to certain sounds; I will turn, look, sometimes flinch, respond if needed.
I listen for pleasure. I feel very privileged in that I’m a night person and a morning person. I stay up late, and often spend time in bed listening to the local neighbourhood tawny, a sound I adore. It lets me drift away all gentle and smiling. I can sleep easily anyway, but there’s something special about being lullabied by your own tawny. If you get the chance, try it. I also tend to wake up early, and allow myself the joy of immersing myself in the dawn chorus. I’ve slowly learnt to tell the sound of one bird from another, but I’m still pretty useless at it, there is so much more I want to know. I can just about tell the to-ing and fro-ing that goes on between pairs of birds, and have learnt how to isolate particular conversations within the general orchestral sound. But I have no idea which is the male and which is the female, and sometimes I don’t even know what kind of bird is doing the talking. Most regular readers of this blog will know I love my music, stuck in a wondrous rut of my own making and choice. I listen primarily to Western folk/rock/folk-rock music made between 1965 and 1974, and make occasional forays into other genres, cultures and timezones. So much to listen to, so little time.
I listen to learn. More than reading, more than watching, I can concentrate the most when I’m just listening. I have no idea why this is the case. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a home where there was no television, and in a city where electricity was something you experienced occasionally. The phone was often on the blink; battery-powered portable radios only began to show up in India when I was in my mid-teens. Most of the time, we spent time talking to each other, playing, and, when and where possible, we listened to the radio. School was also more about listening and learning than watching and learning; obviously there were exceptions, in the chemistry and biology labs, in carpentry class and in the gym. But by and large I grew up in a listen-and-learn culture. When I emigrated to the UK in 1980, it was the first time I’d ever left India; in fact it was the first time I’d ever lived in a city other than Calcutta; the previous 23 years of my life had been lived in just three houses, 1957-59, 1959-69 and 1969-80. I had no choice but to listen, to understand what people were saying (their accents were strange to me), to understand what they meant (the words, idioms and usages I’d never come across). It pays to be quiet in such circumstances.
I listen to serve. I’ve always been fascinated by one strange thing. Faced by a caterwauling catchment of children, mothers can tell if the crying comes from one of theirs or not. Amazing. Yet natural and innate. And to be expected. Similarly, a week-old baby can tell if the voice she hears is her mother’s, and is calmed. Soon after, she can distinguish her father’s voice from all else. Parents listening, children listening, the foundation for a good relationship. A parent who doesn’t hear her child can’t look out for that child; a child who doesn’t hear her parent can neither protect nor please. As a child I listened because I wanted to please: my parents, my teachers, my heroes and role-models. [That didn’t last throughout my childhood, I was a difficult teenager, but I started off an obedient child]. I spent 15 years learning under the Jesuits, so there was no dearth of authority models. And you learnt to listen, to obey. And to question, but only within a secure and respectful relationship. No relationship, no questioning. And then I started working, and came across new authority models. After a while it all became the same thing. It wasn’t about obedience or following orders or authority figures or anything like that. As a child, as a student, as a parent, as a worker, it doesn’t matter what role you’re inhabiting, let’s assume you’re doing something. You’re either doing it for yourself or for someone else. If you’re doing it for yourself, then you need to “listen to yourself”. And if you’re doing it for someone else, it pays to listen to that someone else before you do the something. Unless you’ve become a mindreader.
Sometimes, I listen inadvertently. Over the years, I’ve worked for English, Indian, American, German and French companies. And something strange happened every now and then. The French decided I didn’t speak French. And the Germans decided I didn’t speak German. They were both right. My French dates back to classes between 1973 and 1975; and my German to the hard work of reading some Economics texts in that language between 1976 and 1979. So I didn’t speak French or German. But I listened French and German. I knew enough to be able to translate some of what was being said. Which led to some very interesting inadvertent participations in conversations in lifts and in meetings, as others assumed I couldn’t understand a word. Live and learn.
I listen to test and reflect. I love cooking; a great deal of what I’ve learnt about cooking has come about by my listening to my wife; some of it has come from listening to cooks, often face to face in their restaurants and kitchens, sometimes on TV, occasionally in a cookery class. And it was in a cookery class that I learnt to listen to food, to use the sound of the food to tell whether something is ready or not. This seems particularly true for sauces and stews, but I’ve even heard it applied in other circumstances.
Sometimes I listen to spot patterns and intervene as needed. Many years ago, I worked in sales support; it was my job to build demos, write presentation scripts for salesmen, then hide behind the scenes pressing buttons while someone else spoke about what was happening on the big screen on the big stage. It was a job I enjoyed, so I would do it whenever I could. A couple of times, the unthinkable happened; my monitor died on me during a live presentation, and I could no longer “see” what was happening. On both occasions I had to “listen” to the disk activity to figure out when next to press one or other key. It helped that I’d written the scripts. It helped that I’d done it hundreds of times. It helped that the disk activity soundtrack was embedded deeply in my skull. I’ve never had to do it since, but the principle remains. Many of you would have done something similar. Do you remember the days of dialup modems, when you “knew” whether your connection was up or not solely based on the sounds emanating from the modem? Same thing. A learnt sequence allowing you to understand where you were in a pattern.
Why am I saying all this?
We’re at a point in time when it’s become possible for us to listen to our customers.
When we listen to our customers, it’s worth thinking about the hows and whys of listening. To serve. To learn. To enjoy. To protect against danger. To spot patterns. To respond as needed.
It’s something we’re all going to do a lot of. And we might as well get good at it.
Birds do it, bees do it, even the blessed chillies do it….