This week I’m reflecting on habits of talking about people vs. talking to them. Join me in renewing your commitment to dialogue with others.
I believe one of the great problems in contemporary religion, culture, and society is that we spend so much time talking about people and so little time talking to people. There is a massive – and morally profound – difference in these two little words: about vs. to.
When we talk about people, no courage or character is required. We don’t need to check whether what we are saying is accurate or honoring. Our word is reality – almost divine. Moreover, we don’t need to risk the other person actually having something to say back to us, whether a word of harsh critique, unexpected kindness, or an honest question. No listening is required. We can stay safe in our globe of gossip, the invincible trench of anonymous attack. Our monologue – spiced with others joining us – is unilateral.
When we talk to people, courage and character are required. The other has the opportunity to respond to what we say; we are accountable – not anonymous and invincible. Moreover, we can’t avoid listening to what they say and thus having our projections and prejudices complicated or overthrown. We hear their questions and must engage in dialogue. We may discover that we are wrong, wholly or partially. In fact, we might discover that we like the other person, that we see ourselves in them, that we need a transformed vision of people.
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer formed a dissident, anti-Nazi seminary in 1935, it is striking to me that his first rule of community was this: people were not allowed to talk about others unless they were present.
Bonhoeffer was strict about this rule. He wouldn’t even allow the typically Christian form of gossip: sharing information in the naming of “praying” for someone. In Life Together, Bonhoeffer writes, “talking about others in secret is not allowed even under the pretense of help and good will. For it is precisely in this guise that the spirit of hatred between believers always creeps in” (5:94). Bonhoeffer goes on to claim that “listening can be a greater service than speaking” and insists “the death of the spiritual life starts here”: when we stop listening to others (5:98).
In the darkness of Nazism, Bonhoeffer understood that talking about people destroys trust, community, and human responsibility. Talking about people can slowly evolve into dehumanizing people – seeing others as objects rather than persons, those who have a right to hear and speak on their own behalf. If we talk about people and refuse to talk to them, it becomes a small step to see them as something that can be ignored, excluded, and eradicated.
I’m getting into the habit of talking to people, mainly because I’ve found people’s talk about people so unreliable and uninteresting. If so-and-so is so worth talking about, they must be worth talking to. And thus I’ve gotten numbers, scheduled meetings, and had very interesting conversations with people – some of them very famous, some of them totally unknown. These conversations have been refreshing, illuminating, and challenging. They have required me to stop and think.
Of course, people can lie, and we can misinterpret. We are complex creatures, full of goodness and frightfully fallible. Talking to people isn’t simplistic. Meaningful dialogue requires a level of openness and attention that many of us find exhausting or allergic.
But if nothing else, talking to – rather than about – people builds our moral character. It cultivates respect for persons, quality of speech, the courage to listen, and the surprise of community where we might least expect it.
I invite you to try an experiment: talk about people less; talk to people more. I think you’ll find it rewarding, just like Bonhoeffer’s community did in 1935.
The times are dark; there is light in the neighbor’s face – even the one we least expect.