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I Hear You

I remember when I realized that “I hear you” was big with the 360 Degree Feedback crowd. It was in 2008, and the proof came via a colleague in the university external relations office where I worked. She was one of those people who rise to the top in academic administration without displaying any degree of talent let alone basic competence (in HR speak: low ambiguity tolerance). To say she was a yes-woman put it mildly; she tended to nod into perpetuity like a bobble-head toy.

People thought of her as Miss Sunshine because she was always smiling and saying thank-you. She was Catholic and prim, with an aesthetic that suggested Karen Sue Pence by way of Lilly Pulitzer. With her strawberry blond hair and fair skin, the black splotch on her forehead every Ash Wednesday screamed down the hall to all sinners: Look what I’m enduring for you! At Christmas she sent fruit baskets from Harry & David. She had a lifetime supply of Monet waterlilies cards from the MFA.

You might think this kind of personality was the furthest thing from a corporate shill with a hatchet. But you would be wrong. She was Employee Zero when it came to signing up for Effective Performance Training & Evaluation for Managers. The staff assistants, who called her N-dawg, would email when she’d be out for career development: N-dawg off learning better techniques for not giving you a raise.

After one of these career days, N-dawg returned to the office woke. She was woke because now, when confronted with an HR-related problem she didn’t have the capacity to resolve, she would nod and say, “I hear you.” That was it. She’d never do anything to follow up. But she did say “I hear you”—a lot.

It was strange hearing one of the whitest people on earth appropriate a phrase that had such deep rhetorical roots in black communities. “I hear ya” is a versatile colloquialism. It can mean “I’m with you on that” but also “OK, got it” or “Don’t need to tell me” or “Been there myself” or “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” or “Fuck, yeah.”

Last week, when cameras caught Donald Trump’s crib sheet for a White House listening session with Parkland students and their families, the fact that “I hear you” was on the list made perfect sense. The wall-builder needed reminding that proletarians had this annoying tendency to consider communication a two-way street. It must’ve been a grueling experience for him to shut up and listen. But he summoned all his bone-spur force to persevere. Like N-dawg, he could say “I hear you” and then refuse to act on what he heard.

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New York City nudges us away from acting like Trumps and N-dawgs.

To the credit of HR indoctrinators, “I hear you” sensitivity training was meant to be proactive rather than reactive. The woke N-dawg was to have been on the lookout for signs of subordinate stress, ready to reach out with “Do you want to talk about it?” Instead, she used “I hear you” as a crutch—empty words to endure awkward moments before returning to the status quo. And Trump did the same. This past Monday, when he met with 39 of the nation’s governors on gun safety, he advocated for more mental health institutions like back “in the old days” (pre-Reagan, I presume), sticking to the pro-gun script of blaming mental illness for mass shootings.

In the shadow of the blatant lying about gun violence from the NRA lobby and those in its pocket, this scapegoating is especially cynical, equating extreme carnage with mental illness when hospital admissions for suicidal U.S. teenagers have doubled over the past ten years.

As so much empty talk about mental illness contributes to the DC quagmire, it is heartening to know that New York is moving ahead when it comes to something that afflicts one in five Americans. The city just launched an ad campaign to help us talk to those in our daily lives struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. I’ve seen three of these ads on subway cars and they’re surprisingly good. In their simplicity and everydayness, they show how the banal things we say can have such a positive (or negative) impact on someone who feels pushed to the edge.

They’re just cartoons with dialogue balloons. One shows a woman approaching another woman who seems disturbed as she sits on a sofa. Rather than ask “What’s wrong with you?”—the comment that’s received a strikethrough—she says, “You look upset. Do you want to talk?” Another scene is in an office, where an obviously distressed employee is in a funk at his desk. His colleague might have said “Try not to think about it,” but with the edit, we have the more empathetic “I get how hard it can be.”

Coincidentally, the ads use the same device as a poster popular with the Never Again campaign, where “Thoughts and Prayers” gets the strikethrough in lieu of “Action and Change.”

The city’s ads are part of a $5 million marketing campaign to get New Yorkers to take Mental Health First Aid training, an eight-hour course offered locally by the National Council for Behavioral Health, which imported the program from Australia in 2008 and adapted it for Americans. The training is part of the city’s larger mental health effort to shift the focus from punishment to public health.

Given the sizable budget allocated to this campaign, the city had better do much more than a few subway posters to get the word out. But it should nonetheless produce more of these “Choose the Best Words” scenarios because they get people to read them and think. They show New Yorkers that with every incidental move we make toward others, we can help rather than hurt. §

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