The Art of Looking

Posted 1 year ago by John



Tom Pow


A recurring theme in Allan Little’s conversation at The Crichton Conversation on 22 January was the importance of listening in his practice as a reporter. Often, a member of his team would ask him, ‘Why did you record so much of that conversation, when so little will be broadcast?’ His answer was, ‘Because I was listening.’ And the more he listened, the more he understood complexity and so could convey the story with clarity. His conversation in Dumfries was full of the vividness that characterised his reporting – pictures, whether on television or on radio, were key. His sympathetic eye could pick out a telling detail that he/we found moved us with the power of metaphor: for example, his encounter with the old father in a bombed building in the Bosnian war, who was still, almost incomprehensibly, wearing a tie.


The basic skills of conversation – eye contact, listening, not shouting – are beyond many of our political class and certainly such modelling escapes the most powerful man on the planet. But Allan’s comments reminded me of the significance of ‘looking’ during conversation. In a Paris Review interview, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, once a journalist himself, told of the advice he gave to a class of trainee journalists. He told them, when interviewing, not to use a notebook, not even a recording device. He claimed the presence of either skews the nature of the exchange. Moreover, by paying attention to your notepad, you will fail to observe some of the most significant elements of the interview/conversation; namely, gesture, body language, expression, tone.


This advice came back to me, when I was working on my book, In Another World: Among Europe’s Dying Villages, some years ago. My research had taken me to one of the most affected areas in Europe, the villages in the Kostroma region some hours north of Moscow. Not having any Russian, I was dependent on Masha, my 23 year old interpreter and general fixer. In the first couple of interviews (almost invariably with old women), I found the process hampered by my own social politeness. I would look at Masha, as she asked one of my questions, then I’d look at the interviewee, then back to Masha for the answer and so on. It was a most stilted dance!

Then Masha and I worked out a process. I would tell her what I was interested in and how the conversation might begin; then she was just to run with it, bringing me in only when the occasion merited. Meanwhile, I sat off to the side, a silent partner for most of the time, noting these other non-speech acts –
  an emphatic gesture, a change in body language, hesitations, tone. The encounter ended, as it often began, with me being effusively communicative, in my own way. Then, back in the car, always parked some way off (you should walk into a village), Masha and I would splice the conversation into a whole.


Another interesting variation on ‘looking’ in conversation was given by Colin Thubron at an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival some years ago. In answering a question about how he managed to hold conversations with reticent Chinese for his book, Behind the Wall, Thubron told how he had evolved two techniques for the purpose. The first was that he always ‘lost face’ first; a face-losing confession would draw a matching confession from his ‘interviewee’. The second technique was that he learned to take notes while writing in his notebook, while both notebook and hand were in his pocket. Like dream notations, if he could look at the page without too much time having passed, the significant marks would bring the conversation back to him.


I’ve bracketed listening and looking together here, as it seems that many of us, while listening, are looking down at mobile devices, or at other distractions, and missing much of what makes a conversation a uniquely human event. (In fact, research has shown that merely having a mobile phone on the table impedes the ‘success’ of a conversation by as much as a third.) On 16 February, at the day long series of talks organised by the Royal Society of Edinburgh on ‘The Art of Conversation’, as part of A Year of Conversation 2019, Dr Marieke Schouwstra, will be ‘discussing non-verbal conversations and communication’ in Speaking Without Words. She will be talking of fascinating research which shows that speakers, who do not share a language, create one out of common gestures to make ‘conversation’ possible. [Dr Schouwstra’s event is from 14.15-15.00. 

For a full listing of the programme, see What’s On at or go to].


As a finishing footnote, Masha and I did discover another way of working. It was towards the end of our time together and it was based on trust between us – and on listening and looking. This is a short edited extract from In Another World, that describes this method of conversation. It is with Sergei, one of a collective of gardeners . . . 

"The question of the future is a big question. It depends on politics. No one is pushing a rural agenda with enthusiasm. Putin has some understanding, having come from a rural village himself, but no clear policy."

"There is the problem, for example, of the division between collective farm land and state land. State land can be bought and sold, but not collective farm land, no matter how unused it is. We would like to expand, buy a couple of more fields, but it is impossible to buy them."

"Would people come if land were available?"

"Sure. Why? For pleasure. We are all from the village. Not this village and not even from a real village. But from a village of people."

I had been focusing all the time on Sergei's face, his lively eyes, his glinting, gold-capped teeth, as Masha simultaneously gave me what he was saying, softly and fluently. On an earlier occasion, with Lydia, I had found myself confused, my focus wavering as, attempting some kind of misguided politeness, I turned from Lydia's Russian to Masha's translation and lost part of both. Language is more than simply the words, which is why Gabriel Garcia Marquez advises journalists to abjure note-taking and recording equipment during an interview for keen attention and an awareness of how voice and gesture give words their nuances. Now, towards the end of the trip, I think Masha and I had 'flow'.

From In Another World - Among Europe's Dying Villages (Polygon, 2012)


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