Listening and Backchannels

Listening. It is a big part of the human experience. As listeners, we strive to demonstrate to we are not self-centered solipsists so to build continuity in conversation, we employ cues — linguists refer to these cues as backchannels. Backchannels! Finally, a word to describe nonverbal and verbal feedback that we universally communicate during social exchanges: incessant nodding or eyebrow raising or repetitive utterances — yeah, mhmm, ah, okay. For example, the author would not judge his approximately eight readers’ choices of feedback upon discovering hearing about this blog: “eek! A socialist! (horizontal head shake),” or somewhat less likely, “preach that backchannel gospel brother! (skyward fist raise).”

Across the spectrum we listeners have presumably grown paralyzingly self-conscious and tired of clichéd, mundane oohs, ahs, nods, shakes, hmms, uh-huhs, rights and okays — at least from the author’s mostly unwarranted perspective. Consequently, though to his knowledge, no one has ever asked, and no public need or market niche will be satisfied, the author marches boldly forward;what follows is a list of fresh alternatives to bring you one step closer to the backchannel brilliance you now doubtlessly seek.

Verbal backchannels


• yeah

• uh-huh

• hm

• right

• okay

• oh

• ah

Less common (give one a try!)

• tongue-click

• repeat what you hear

• la-di-da

• ack!

• zounds!

• pfft

• psssh (very fun to say)

• gadzhooks

Never been tried (use with caution!)

• holy nick cage

• shhh

• look, an illegal immigrant!

• keep saying words!

• unsolicited scream

• nothing matters

• it’s time to take back this economy from crony capitalism and the one percent (note: 100% success rate so far, with bipartisan appeal)

Nonverbal backchannels


• nod

• eyebrow raise

• laughter (can be genuine or pretend)

• squint

• slight head tilt

• controlled head shake

Hip and trendy

• unbroken eye contact into soul

• thumbs up

• sigh

• mid-convo high five

• nose bop

• nose exhale (apparently this is big in Scandanavia — can’t wait to try!)

Risky (for thrill seekers)

• yawn

• belly button bop

• thumbs down

• 180 degree head tilt

• eye roll (must hold finished position for > five seconds)

• vigorous head shake

• lightly graze partner’s chin (works especially with alligators, giving you complete control in the dialectic)

• point at their face

I should have led with the following: once you know you cannot unknow — for this I apologize right away. The backchannel revolution has begun.

Jordan Rosenblum, labor market consulant and public policy and welfare master’s student, blogs about arguably more important things, like human capital strategy and inequality, at

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