Posted July 2nd 2010 at 12:29 pm by
in Media Mindfulness, What makes people listen?

What Makes People Listen?

When I moved to Santiago, Chile to study abroad at la Universidad de Chile in my junior year at UC Berkeley, my world turned upside down.  In Santiago, I struggled through broken Spanish to buy basic groceries at the corner store, witnessed the city come alive to honor the memory of Chilean President Salvador Allende on the thirtieth anniversary of the coup, protested with expats against the start of the Iraq war (calling ourselves “Gring@s Contra la Guerra”), met my first love and drank terremotos with Los Tres playing in the background.

My host mom, Sandra, a rebellious feminist and single mother, introduced me to the women at ANAMURI (Asociacion Nacional de Mujeres Rurales e Indigenas), who worked to fight for the rights of temporeras, or women who worked as seasonal fieldworkers.  Through ANAMURI, I interviewed over a dozen temporeras, wandering into living rooms with a tape recorder and virtually no understanding of agriculture or rural issues.  I sat in on meetings of rural women who striked for their right to wear gloves to protect them from pesticides, and talked to women whose children were born with deformities as a result of chemical exposure.  In one of my interviews, I nearly froze in disbelief when a temporera from down the street wandered into the house and broke into tears with the confession that she hadn’t eaten in three days—out of money and out of work in the off season.

Back at Berkeley, I wrote feverishly to depict what I had witnessed in my senior thesis, with the hope that my research just might draw some attention to the issue.  I poured my heart and soul into this writing, and spit out a ninety-page senior thesis.  A couple of professors and friends read it, and then it went on the shelf.

Simultaneously, I was taking an Ethnic Studies class led by the inspiring Chinese American filmmaker, Loni Ding, known affectionately as the Mother of Asian American Film.  (Read my tribute to Loni.)  She gave us cameras and threw us into groups with an open-ended assignment to make a film about whatever we wanted.  Mine was about the Patriot Act.  It was sloppy, full of editing mistakes and talking heads, and we finished it just minutes before running over to screen it in front of an audience of about 200 of our classmates, friends, families and interviewees.

However, while the thesis went on a shelf, the film started a conversation.  After the screening, people approached us with questions.  What happened to the young Pakistani college student we interviewed?  What was the status on the law?  How could students get involved?

This was the beginning of my journey to understand the power of multimedia as a vehicle to lift up community voices. In a media brainstorming session earlier this year, Dayna Cunningham from the CoLab put forth this point: “the compelling thing about storytelling is the ability to make sensible the experiences of people that are so different from yours that they are counterfactual.” For me, film/video and social media tools have the potential to viscerally connect people who would not otherwise cross paths.

As part of my summer series, I will share my thoughts on the role of multimedia tools in community work and planning.  For now, I ask you this question—what do you think makes people listen to stories that are not like their own?  What makes them take action?  Do new media tools help this process or further exacerbate the divide?

Stefanie Ritoper is a Masters in City Planning Candidate at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT.  With a background in community-based research and film, she is interested in increasing economic opportunities for diverse low-income communities and using multimedia tools to engage people in public processes.  She has long distance love for her hometown of Los Angeles.

Photo courtesy of Municipalidad de Melipilla, Chile.

10 responses to “What Makes People Listen?”

  1. Alexa Mills says:

    I think people listen to stories that are not like their own because inevitably the stories ARE like their own, even if it’s in a tiny way. Some people may never have gone without food for three days, but maybe they have gone without food for one day and remember the feeling, or maybe they have had to wait for something else extremely important for three days. When they hear the voice, they can understand something that meant nothing to them in data form. Maybe that’s part of the answer. I surely don’t know what makes people take action!

  2. Stefanie says:

    Definitely– I think that there is a visceral connection that people make to stories that are not like their own if they are done right. I agree that we ALL have things in common, regardless of how different we think we are. Even if you haven’t gone without food yourself, you know the feeling of hunger, or the feeling of shame.

    So, you know I am obsessed with This American Life. There are a few great articles/blog entries about storytelling by Ira Glass and other This American Life staff about great storytelling:

    An older one–


    The page they use to guide people who want to submit–

    Have you seen these?

  3. Shoko says:

    I really love the way that you phrased your series. “What makes people listen?”

    It almost seems like the same question as, “How can one be heard?” but it’s so different. The latter sounds like something that a public relations company would say; How you can put your message forward – whether the receiver of the message likes it or not. For this, the sender of the message is “heard” and the receiver of the message doesn’t really matter.

    But your question is, what makes people “listen.” Grammatically speaking, the receiver of the message is the one taking action – of listening. So that automatically implies engagement of the listener, and perhaps interaction between the storyteller and the listener.

    I don’t know much about multimedia, but from what I know, it’s more interactive, and therefore can perhaps be a “listen” tool, rather than a “heard” tool? – if that makes sense…

  4. Aditi says:

    I am very excited for this series, Stefanie! I think it so easy to see the differences among groups of people – their race, religion, education, experience, background, etc. Media is so powerful because it is able to obscure those divisions and reveal connections. It is those connections that I think make people listen and inspire them to take action…

  5. Stefanie says:

    Shoko, thanks for your comment! I hadn’t really thought about the phrasing in that way, but you are right. I agree that the active role of the audience is key. I think that the participatory and crowdsourcing aspects of social media tools are part of what is making people see these tools as useful to democratize planning and public processes. What I’m also starting to realize that organizational culture really matters in determining if these tools genuinely open the democratic process or not. If the organization is closed or has highly inflexible messaging, it will tend to embrace social media tools in this same way.

    Actually, Danielle Martin (MCP 2009) wrote about the role that organizational culture plays in media tools in her thesis:

    And you know Rob Goodspeed (DUSP Phd 2) is all about the intersection between democracy and media tools.

    Aditi, awesome, thanks! I agree, it’s the common ground that connects people on an emotive level, and creates understanding. But, what I have been thinking about is– what makes people take that next step? What makes people get out of an awesome social issue documentary or film and decide to volunteer, donate, vote or change their lifestyles?

  6. manisha says:

    I think folks are right – hearing other people tell their story sheds light on our common experience. I agree that media is a necessary and important mechanism to bring those voices that are not commonly portrayed in the mainstream to the fore. Media that is “participatory” or just by and for those that are the subjects of the production is crucial.

    Stef, finding an answer to your question about taking people to the next level of involvement or engagement on the issue is critical. Just telling our stories isn’t enough. I feel we need to create, validate, and fight for more spaces to tell our stories and promulgate our solutions to injustices or oppression we face, thus (hopefully) shifting the mainstream rhetoric. We can use our stories to promote the change we want to see. I think providing recommendations – from small (eg. sign a petition, take out your phone and call Senator X right after the screening) to larger (eg. volunteer, vote, change your lifestyle) – about steps we can take to get involved on the issue may start to get us where we need to be.

    Collectively, we are bombarded by media talking about all kinds of social issues. We rely on the idea that people care once they hear about something, or that they will know how to take action about the issue. Unfortunately, I think most people don’t know how to get involved. Often people are asked to donate money to a causes, which I find is a valid and important recommendation. But, the relationship to the cause can become transactional and short-lived – a one time experience that can be forgotten once the check clears.

    So, I think I’m just rephrasing your question, Stef – how do we cultivate lasting personal relationships to the issue using media and personal narrative?

  7. Nathalie says:

    Hi Stef,

    The new media for sure have created a complete new way of sharing stories. Lots of positive things have been written around using the social media to favor civic involvement: can attracts lot of people, it’s fast, it allows instent reply and having “on line engagement” is decreasing number of constraints:time, physical presence…The support use to drive your Ideas and projects is essential to create reaction (as per your example, it’s harder to create reaction based on a written essay versus a movie shared and discuss with a group: people remember more what they see and say then what they read). However, the whole world is not touched by message the same way. So asking what is the right suport to have your stories heard and get the people involved will be linked to “who” is your audience and “what” reaction / action you want to encourage.

    I personnaly like testimonies shared directly by the people and your story on these womens in Chile makes me really think on the great value of engagement…The story that will make a difference for me are the ones that I will believe. I questioned everything that “has been worked” with the objectives of trying to move people so they can get involved in a cause. I like the fact that I will decide to be involved without not feeling any push (Satre has described freedom as being engaged). However, as most of the people, I will also react with the social pressure. You can already see that a group of people watching together a movie will feel more pressure to show an interest…

  8. Alexa Mills says:

    Manisha, I really like your observation that we need more spaces for stories. I agree! There are a lot of great stories out there, but they need to be amplified. I think that mainstream media doesn’t yet know how to collaborate with communities.

  9. Stefanie says:

    Manisha, YES!! I think this rephrasing is right on point.

    The situation that you present is all too common. Someone hears a touching story of someone affected by a particular issue and wants to take action, but does not know how to get involved. This is a critical point of engagement that media producers often neglect—critical because this gap of inaction leads the individual to feel powerless, which then leads to cynicism. The next time this person has the opportunity to hear more information, for example, on the BP oil spill in the gulf, he or she will look away, or shut off the TV. I have often heard baby boomers wonder credulously about why younger generations don’t get actively involved in social issues like they did in the 60s, and I think that this cycle of inaction and powerlessness is a major contributing force. I think that it is the responsibility of media producers to use their distribution techniques not just as a forum for self-promotion, but as a forum to engage the audience in self reflection and provide links for action.

    The other angle at this is that media, traditional or “new,” is not a solution in and of itself. It is absolutely important to cultivate lasting personal relationships to the issue, and multimedia is just one type of a myriad of tools to strengthen these relationships. Developing the leadership of affected people does not necessarily require new approaches because we are using “new media.”

    I’ve been recently reading Manuel Castells’ analysis of how mobile communication has influenced social, cultural and political life. One take away is that mobile technology allows people to connect to their networks at any given moment—for example social texting during work hours or doctor’s appointments, or work calls on weekends. However, particularly in the US, people will not necessarily connect to new people through texting and mobile communication. To me, this means that we have to build on the wisdom of “old school” relationship building, keeping in mind the small advantages of the ability to constantly connect to your existing networks. I have a few concrete ideas about how you can use video to have community members connect through personal narratives, which I will talk about in my next post on participatory video, and I’d love to hear more.

    Nath, THANK YOU for your comment!

    I really like this description by Sartre that freedom is being engaged. Powerful. I think you are right that one of the things that video and social media offers is the ability to engage without physically being present. Hopefully, just as increased phone conversations cause people’s desire for increased face-to-face meetings, increased online engagement can also increase people’s desire for face-to-face engagement, in whatever format this takes. To your point that perhaps funneling people into a specific cause can feel forced, I think that media producers can offer audiences a forum for exchanging thoughts and ideas, as well as providing multiple ways for people to get involved. I agree that we can’t discount the power of seeing things differently, raising consciousness and engaging—and I genuinely believe that exchanging stories increases empathy, which in turn leads people to look at any particular issue with a more complex understanding.

  10. Thanks for raising this critical question – millions of philanthropic dollars and fates depend on it. I struggled with the same questions while documenting the work of urban poor federations in India for the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC) and turning it into reports, news stories, and essays.

    The trend in grant proposals and project evaluations is toward quantitative measures for capturing goals and impact. You can see why this would be the case – it’s easy and indisputable. As NGOs and governments are increasingly reformed according to corporate principles, this is the most efficient way to measure success.

    Numbers can help with accountability and making things tangible, but communicating the human story is critical. A lot of successful activism and models for change play out slowly. SPARC, which worked to help slum dwellers secure land, sanitation and housing, could point to numbers of units built, savings accumulated, toilets constructed. However, their real achievements can only come through stories: how a woman from a slum, previously afraid to leave the house when a stranger came by, now plans and implements city-wide sanitation programs with the mayor of one of India’s largest cities; how women who had to pay exorbitant rates to moneylenders to buy school uniforms for their children now have enough savings to invest in a business; how slum dwellers have managed to prevent forced evictions through negotiation.

    The stories are there, but conveying them to busy people, far away, who have no personal experience with them, is a real challenge.