My Dear Friends Laurel & Yanny

June 15, 2018

Oh hey there, Laurel! Hey Yanny. Thanks for showing up and making my head want to explode. Up until you came around I’d been living my life, happily believing that reality was actually a thing, but now I know better. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go give THIS a listen, then listen to it with several of your closest friends, then burst into tears or read some Ayn Rand or stare vacantly into space for a little while.) The whole “what color is the dress” thing didn’t bother me so much. I’m not really sure why, except that I’ve just always kind of figured that we see things slightly differently. And we’ve all seen enough optical illusions in our lives to know that images frequently play tricks on our eyes. I accept that we see things differently, but I guess it’s harder for me to believe that we really, actually, literally hear things differently.

In my previous state of happy naivete, I had assumed that when presented with a piece of evidence, everyone would observe that piece of evidence and they would smile understandingly at one another and say “Ah, yes, we’re all on the same page now. Wonderful.” But now Laurel and Yanny have showed up and shattered that illusion for me. Just suppose that the Laurel/Yanny audio recording was somehow required as evidence in a trial. Suppose some poor intern (let’s name him Hubert) was told to send an email containing sensitive information to one of his superiors, and for some reason the instructions came as a digitally created recording and Hubert ended up sending the email to Yanny in marketing instead of to Laurel in accounting. And then Yanny, who wasn’t too bright, used the information contained in that email in an inappropriate way, thus leading to an enormous lawsuit (and this brilliantly hypothetical trial). What happens when Hubert’s lawyer says “Well, ladies and gentlemen, lucky for us, we have obtained a copy of that recording!” and then he plays it for everyone and half the jury hears Laurel and half the jury hears Yanny?? What happens when something that ought to be objective turns out to be subjective?

Now, as far as I’m concerned, the voice is quite clearly saying Laurel. I can’t even a tiny bit hear anything approximating Yanny. I was starting to believe that anyone who claimed they heard Yanny was lying (this includes roughly half the people I know), until my mom told me that she listened to it the other day, heard the name “Laurel” being repeated, and then heard my dad (who had no knowledge of this debate at the time) ask from the other room “Why are you listening to someone say ‘Tammy’ over and over again?…Oh wait, it’s Yanny.” Apparently, when it comes to my willingness to believe that the people close to me are liars, I draw the line at my dad.

If people are ACTUALLY hearing Yanny instead of Laurel, then this world is a nonsense world and nothing is real, because this is not just theoretical, “we all have our own perspectives” stuff. This isn’t the advice you get in premarital counseling where you read generic anecdotes of newlywed couples having droll little misunderstandings where he says “I’m hungry” and she hears “Why haven’t you made dinner yet?” This is concrete, science fiction voodoo in which we are not just hearing different meanings behind the words but we are actually hearing different words. I know, I know, there are explanations for this phenomenon. I know that it’s (probably) not science fiction voodoo. But if it’s possible to listen to the same thing and actually hear different things, then is it any wonder that we misunderstand and judge each other when it comes to more abstract concepts? Is it any wonder that marriages are hard, that people experience conflict in the workplace, that conservatives and liberals think so differently about things? Plenty often, our difficulties arise from the fact that people are actually selfish, that someone made a bad choice or behaved in a way that was objectively wrong. But sometimes, perhaps one person simply heard Laurel and the other heard Yanny, and both things are true.

Let’s say, for instance, that my husband and I have a tiny dispute. (This NEVER happens, so this is purely theoretical.) Just for fun, imagine that I look at our calendar and see that he has put company on it for a few days. Wanting to confirm that what I see on the calendar is correct, I say “Hey, what day are our guests coming into town next week?” and he answers “Tuesday.” Based on that brief interaction, it’s not unreasonable to assume that I ought to have the guest room ready on Tuesday, right? But now let’s jump into his brain, where he hears me ask “Hey, what day are our guests {who are staying at an AirBnB} coming into town next week?” When he answers “Tuesday,” he assumes we’re on the same page — that we have friendss coming into town on Tuesday and we will be available to them while they’re here. And when he sees me making up the guest bed and cleaning the guest bathroom, he assumes I’m just doing my thing, cleaning the house for the pure joy of it. (Which….is actually normal.)

If you look up the definition of “guest,” you’ll find these as the first two entries:

a a person entertained in one’s house
b a person to whom hospitality is extended

Based on the first definition, you can understand my confusion when I discovered that I did not, in fact, need to have our guest room ready on Tuesday. But based on the second definition, and based on the understanding that Todd did not realize I was unaware that our out-of-town guests would be staying at an AirBnB and not with us, he can’t be faulted for not clarifying the point when I asked when they’d be arriving. Same question, but our different understandings of the situation made us interpret it differently.

I was joking about that being hypothetical, obviously. Todd and I don’t fight very much but we do have lots and lots of moments like that one. In Myers Briggs terms, I’m an ISFJ and he’s an ENTP, which means we have a tendency to operate in opposite ways in every category, and we have no shortage of examples of times where we are asking and answering questions of each other, only to discover that we’re having completely different conversations. He says Laurel, and I hear Yanny. (Actually, this analogy completely breaks down at this point because, funny enough, we both hear Laurel. When we discovered this, he started singing “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” but changed the lyrics to “And I said/What about/Us both hearing Laurel/And she said/Well that’s/The one thing we’ve got.” When he’s not answering my questions in bewildering ways, he’s the greatest.)

My kids f-r-e-q-u-e-n-t-l-y have experiences like this, even my oldest two, who generally get along the easiest out of all my kids. Kiefer is more of an out-of-the-box, unconventional thinker, while Cooper is extremely practical and precise. Normally this poses no problem for them, but sometimes Kiefer’s unconventionality completely exasperates Cooper. My favorite example is the time Cooper asked Kiefer how much homework he had, and Kiefer just stared at Cooper for a really, really long time. Cooper, annoyed, started snapping “Kiefer! Just tell me how much homework you have!” over and over, his voice getting increasingly high-pitched. A smile twitched at the edges of Kiefer’s mouth, and he finally said “I AM telling you,” which absolutely infuriated Cooper. Now, just so you know, the answer to this weird little conversational riddle is that silence = zero. The amount of homework Kiefer had was zip, nada, zilch, and why waste words on nothing? Some of you may be like Kiefer, able hear the creative meaning behind the silence. I’m guessing more of you are like Cooper, liable to be deeply irritated by someone silently smirking at you instead of answering your question. But which is it — creativity or impertinence? Is it Yanny or Laurel?

Sometimes I worry that I’m crazy. Sometimes I wonder if Todd is. Sometimes I’m pretty sure some or all of my children are. Sometimes when I listen to political commentary I’m convinced that half the country is crazy. I do believe, very strongly, that there is such as thing as objective truth and right and wrong, and that truth is knowable. But Laurel and Yanny are proving that there are times when we truly (and without malice) perceive things differently, and at times like that all we can do is shake our heads at the absurdity of life, and feel grateful that any of us can manage to get along with each other at all.

  1. Jenn

    June 16th, 2018 at 10:39 pm

    This might be one of my most favorite posts by you ever. I haven’t even listened to the video, but I will. I love your take on it. It IS a freaking miracle that any of us can manage to get along!!!!

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Elisa Joyful 

Hi friends! You have landed at elisajoyful.com, and if you are looking for some warm and witty words to read, you’ve come to the right place, so get comfy and settle in. If you’re looking for the SiNes of Life podcast, you’re almost in the right place - just click on the “Listen to Podcast” link below. And if you’ve come here because you’re interested in having me speak at your event, you can contact me below!

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