Social media post controversy – listening vs. reading

By Ande Jacobson

Over time I have learned a few things about social media posts.

First, a surprising number of people consume the stuff I write for which I am appreciative.

Second, even something I consider innocuous or even trivial can become controversial depending on the consumer’s interpretation.

Third, it’s important to take a step back and not necessarily engage at face value. A person’s response may not necessarily be directly related to what I wrote or intended but could be a response to something my writing triggered in them or to an unstated connection they made. They experienced what they experienced. They could be reacting to that with my writing acting as a catalyst for them. No matter the reason, discussion is fine, but attacks are not.

Fourth, the way language is used today, meanings seem somewhat fluid despite what the dictionary may have recorded. This unfortunately goes back to an experiment I ran at work several years ago regarding that elusive concept of “common knowledge.” Common knowledge in this case extends to the meaning of various words or terms which may not be as universal as I thought. This makes communication much more challenging and sometimes frustrating.

When I write, I choose my words carefully based on their meaning (or at least my understanding of their meaning per their dictionary definitions). I have found that on occasion somebody may consume what I write and then respond in an unexpected way because they interpret my words to mean something different, even adding things that aren’t there.

Finally, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. That’s not why I write. I’m not trying to please people. I’m writing about things that I am thinking about. Sometimes those things are current events. Sometimes those things are pet peeves. Sometimes those things bring me joy. Sometimes those things spark my interest. Sometimes those are things that I feel compelled to pass along either as a public service or just as a way to say, “This is cool!”

So what was this unintentionally controversial post? I started with a simple statement of fact: listening is not the same thing as reading. Listening and reading are different skills/activities. They use different senses. Studies are mixed as to how the brain responds to each, what overlap exists, and which fosters greater comprehension. With respect to comprehension and learning there is some evidence that reading physical books vs. reading an e-book or listening to an audio book has a slight advantage because of the reinforcement inherent in the activity of reading a physical book. That reinforcement includes but is not limited to turning the pages and associating the physical location of specific passages on the page which aid in memory. The referenced study discussion wasn’t focused on whether study participants were visual or audial learners which could also have some impact on the results.

All that aside, the motivation prompting the post in question wasn’t whether reading or listening was better. My focus was on the misleading use of terminology and the seemingly arbitrary redefinition of the skill of reading.

In the post, I added my personal opinion related to the differences between reading a book vs. listening to an audio book which are separate activities. They both allow the consumer to engage with the content of the book, but they are not exactly the same. I made the mistake of including my preference for reading over listening to a book and my opinion that reading gives one a deeper connection to the material, which for me it does. That admittedly was my opinion based on my experience not an objective fact, and it sparked a massive reaction from numerous friends, some of whom got very defensive and strenuously disagreed with me, a few in a very hostile manner. I evidently hit a nerve among those who prefer audio books.

The advent of audio books certainly widens the reach of all types of literature which is a positive thing, but that wasn’t the point, nor was it really to say that reading was better than listening, my personal opinion aside. The point was as simple as the statement of fact that began the post. Listening and reading are not the same thing. They are different skills.

From that exchange, I learned about an ongoing debate of which I previously was unaware. That is that for the sake of inclusion, listening to audio books is often referred to as reading by those who are unable to physically read books for a wide variety of reasons such as being visually impaired, having various learning disabilities, or even something as simple as lacking the time to sit down and read. In that last situation, listening allows people to multitask and consume a book while doing other things such as driving, working on something else, or exercising. In the multitasking situation though, one’s attention is divided lowering their effectivity for all of the tasks involved. Numerous studies show that multitasking lowers one’s effective IQ significantly. This has become a concern and even a liability in some instances.

While I understand that nobody wants to be left out, nor should they be, and people can certainly consume books aurally rather than visually if they so choose, the seemingly arbitrary redefinition of terms is still a concern. Reading refers to a specific skill. Listening refers to a different specific skill.

Listening to an audio book adds a performance aspect to the encounter that can sometimes be helpful. Reading the words on the page doesn’t necessarily result in a particular emotional response. Much is left to the reader’s imagination in that case. When listening to the material being read aloud though, vocal inflection can be used to push the listener toward a desired response just as happens with a live theatrical performance. In fact, a strong case can be made that an audio book is a performance medium.

While people often use listening while learning to read to learn how to pronounce the words and to help recognize them when they see them, there are circumstances where reading rather than listening is required. For instance, when driving the road signs must be read. You can’t listen to them as you drive down the highway. You can listen to a GPS device to help you navigate, but speed limits and various other signage still must be read, ignoring for a moment the seeming contradiction that literacy in the language in which the road signs are written isn’t necessarily required. Part of the reason for that is that is that speed limits are numerical, and those cut across numerous languages. Various standard signs are also recognizable by color and/or shape such as the red octagonal stop sign so prevalent on the roads today.

All that said, as technology continues to evolve, we acquire new ways to enjoy the written word, and storytelling (one of the oldest types of performance art) in all its various forms is a part of that evolution. Even so, listening and reading are different skills that are sometimes used in combination while other times are used separately.


A Good Reed Review gratefully accepts direct donations via PayPal to help defray the costs of maintaining this site without creating paywalls.
Donate with PayPal


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.