As an outgoing and talkative person (and I hate to admit, something of a know-it-all), I always seem to have something to say. Though I enjoy listening to other people’s experiences, I usually enjoy sharing my own experiences more. This is not something I’m proud of – it’s an aspect of my personality that I’m aware of and struggle with constantly. I obsessively take notes at museums, lectures, and during walking tours, even when I know that I will probably never refer to the information again. I then look for every opportunity to share what I’ve learned.
When I decided to travel to Greenland, I looked forward to hiking, kayaking, and wildlife spotting, but I wasn’t expecting to have any life-changing experiences. I visited on a cruise staffed by at least a dozen Inuit guides. They led city tours, nature hikes, and kayaking excursions, and gave lectures on the ship to introduce us to Inuit culture and history.
Tina, a culturalist based in Greenland capital of Nuuk, was the first Greenlander (and the first Inuit) person that I had met. The first thing I noticed about her were her facial tattoos – three vertical lines on her chin – an homage to the traditional women’s facial tattoos that European colonizers attempted to eradicate. The next thing I noticed about her was her warm, calm voice. She spoke with purpose and with compassion – intentionally, but infrequently.
Greenland’s Inuit population, which makes up 88% of the population, is often described as shy and quiet. While it’s true that Inuks (individual Inuit people) tend to be quieter and enjoy silence more than most, their stillness reveals more than mere shyness.
Tina explained how she and other Inuit do not simply tolerate silence – they embrace it. Her family of 15, including grandparents, parents, and siblings, enjoy sitting at home together, appreciating each other’s company without speaking a word. She described wonderful summers, where she and her family sat quietly in nature, listening to the creeks and the birds, seeing no reason to comment on them to each other. They already knew what the others were thinking.
Thus far, I had spent most of my time in Greenland obsessively taking notes – on my laptop, on my phone, and in a notebook – hoping to capture as much information as possible. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever visit Greenland again, so I wanted to know as much as possible and I wanted to know it immediately.
As I ran around town trying to talk to as many Nuuk residents as possible, I started to wonder what I was missing while I was so busy documenting.
I couldn’t stop asking Tina questions, and it was clear that my curiosity was starting to wear on her. As I ran around town trying to talk to as many Nuuk residents as possible, I started to wonder what I was missing while I was so busy documenting. Hearing Tina speak, and even more so, absorbing the silence between her words, completely shifted my perspective on how I communicate with the world. For the first time, I put away my technology and listened to what was not being said.
During my previous days on the cruise, I had lived up to my reputation as a very talkative person. Now, I attempted to politely decline invitations to converse on the ship and during city tours and hikes. I hoped that a smile and nod served as an adequate response. I think they did.
About a month later, I traveled to Mexico and Cuba, where I led group tours. While leading trips, I’m especially prone to talking too much, sometimes relying on my title of tour leader as an excuse to dominate a conversation. I also use my small tour company as an excuse to take notes about (and pictures of) everything I see, just in case I’ll need to use it “for business purposes” later on. While this occasionally does happen, the vast majority of pictures and notes I’ve taken rarely leave my phone.
But on these tours, before I spoke, I asked myself: “What would Tina do?”. I paused, took a deep breath, and intently listened to what each of my tour participants had to say before offering a response.
My experience in Greenland continues to impact me and influence how I engage with others. I’m proud to say that I now pause to listen and reflect far more than I used to. But I didn’t become a brand-new person overnight. I still take too many notes while traveling, spend way too much time taking pictures, and I still talk too much, which I recently admitted on the World Nomads podcast about Greenland.
I’m not sure any singular experience can turn any of us into a new person, but I believe they can help us become the people we want to be. I may never become a great listener, but I’m getting better at it, thanks to Tina and other generous Inuks who taught me how.
Hear more from the author, plus mountain biking in Greenland and kayaking the fjords.
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