I was at an event yesterday where the participants were asked to do a listening exercise. We got into pairs and one person had to talk for two or three minutes while the other listened, and the listener was supposed to just hold eye contact, without any nodding or providing facial/verbal cues of any kind.

(A brief aside to state for the record how much I hate the partner up! request when it comes to group activities. I suppose there are some people who simply turn to the person next to them and tip their head, like SHALL WE DANCE? and everything’s great, but for me I find myself facing dead ahead while I desperately try and scan for a sense of receptiveness from whoever’s nearest and when I finally summon enough courage to orient myself in their direction I feel like everyone else has instantly made a new best friend for life and is in the midst of exchanging phone numbers and pricking their fingers to become blood bonded while my person and I are making that emoticon face with the perfectly flat mouth and saying things like “Uh…so.”)

Most people agreed that it was extremely difficult to listen without providing any sort of response. For me it felt not only robotic, but sort of creepy: I was highly aware of the eye contact, and as the seconds ticked by I felt more and more like I wasn’t just delivering a neutral gaze, I was boring holes into her skull with my unflinching eagle-stare. Then I kept losing focus on what she was saying because I was distracted by the effort of not nodding or smiling or crumpling my face sympathetically or any of the things I normally do when I’m talking to someone.

It wasn’t much easier to be the person doing the talking. Afterwards, the instructor said how she believed that talking to someone who’s not offering any distractions in the way of feedback allows someone to get deeper into what they’re saying, but I felt like it was the difference between engaging in a conversation and delivering a speech. Not even a speech, actually, because at least you might get a chuckle from the audience at some point — this was more like reciting the night’s specials to a couple who was masking their impatience (I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE BAKED ORANGE ROUGHY) with blank facial expressions.

The whole point of the exercise, at least if I understand it correctly, was to highlight how we can be better listeners by not allowing our own biases and opinions and conversational tics to distract or influence the person we’re listening to. The general end goal makes sense, but if we were being asked to demonstrate best-practice social engagement, I want nothing to do with it. I mean, I find human interactions challenging enough without taking everything encouraging out of the picture. Without the nodding and smiling and face-wrinkling and eyebrow-shenanigan-ing, you know what you’ve got? A phone call, that’s what. A. PHONE. CALL.

Riley has his 5th grade science project coming up, and he decided he wanted to do a bacteria study. (Well, let’s be honest: I surfed pages and pages of science project ideas and suggested it to him as an alternative to solving the never-before-explored mystery of what happens when you mix Diet Coke and Mentos.) I found an inexpensive bacteria kit on Amazon, and we took samples of various surfaces in the house: a dollar bill, a toilet seat, a bathroom door handle, my cellphone, and the kitchen counter.

His hypothesis was that the cash would be the dirtiest, since it’s been touched by so many people. I suspected my phone would actually be the worst, since I’ve cleaned it … never? I mean, I’ve rubbed it on my shirt a few times when the screen is too smudged to properly view whatever animated GIF I’m trying to snicker at, but that’s it.

The samples, swabbed across agar plates, have been “incubating” in the oven for the past few days, which I agree is a non-ideal place to store growing bacteria, but YOU try and come up with a less unappealing system for subjecting the plates to a precise 85-100 degree temperature range during the gloomiest April on record. Turns out a closed oven with the light on works like a (admittedly not-so-spring-fresh-smelling) charm.

The results are now in, unless there’s some sort of microbial M. Night twist still in the works, and it turns out the dollar produced virtually no bacteria whatsoever. The toilet, unsurprisingly, has quite a bit of growth, as does the door handle. The cellphone only has a few spots, and the blue-ribbon winner … the kitchen counter.

Would you believe I had thoroughly cleaned that counter just before we swabbed it? In fact, I almost told him to pick something else because I figured it was so clean. But no! Now I have to rethink those pretty Method sprays I always use. Apparently I’ve just been wiping away visible dirt, leaving behind both the beguiling scent of honey-ginger-persimmon-pomegranate-whateverthefuck AND innumerable teeming throngs of non-fastidious bacteria. Hey kids, who wants E. coli for dinner?

I can’t lie, though. The worst part of this is that the evidence from his findings will be documented in eye-catching graphic format on that trifold science fair thingie, which will basically amount to a large sign trumpeting MY MOM’S KITCHEN IS MORE FILTHY THAN THE PLACE WHERE WE POOP.

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