The Quiet Privilege of Listening

Craftsman at work in Japan around 1916

When I am not being listened to, I will not speak. That was also the normative practice between wage earners and engineers during my engineering career. By listening and being quiet, I earned the privilege of conversation with craftsmen.

I was taught that a plant engineer and a millwright working together can be an effective team. As a new engineer, after I gained their trust, the millwrights told me that they do not tell engineers how to do their job, even if they are asked. The reason is that most engineers are not interested in listening to someone who is beneath their employment station. “The engineers think they know everything,” a millwright said, “so they don’t care what we think.”

This view of engineers was so pervasive that I even encountered it at home. My better half was a technician, and as such, he could tell me what was wrong with my engineer’s vision and how to fix it. That is, if he cared to, which he seldom did, because everyone knows that engineers do not listen.

Typically, an engineer will become an expert, perhaps in multiple domains. However, the millwrights may also be experts. They work with their tools, equipment, and the plant’s assets every day, and they have a working knowledge that most engineers will never approach. The engineers’ and millwrights’ mutual interest in maintaining equipment is best addressed by their effective working partnership.

Likewise, the citizens of Flint, Michigan have a sophisticated understanding of the many ills that have plagued their city, on many levels, although—evidently—many experts and persons in authority will not take the trouble to learn from folks that they may believe are beneath their station. The Flint Water Crisis Course, which is archived at https://www.uflint.edu/flintwatercrisis, is testament to the knowledge of Flint citizens, who are experts in their own business. Drawing strength from one another, they will find the way forward themselves. I believe they will.

photo credit: Craftsman by A. Davey.