Had dinner the other night in a local Italian restaurant that’s actually run by Italians. The food was good, not great, but the show was wonderful.

A family walked in – parents, a 16-17 year old daughter and her 14-15 year old brother. While the parents talk about the menu, wine and the evening’s agenda, the kids roll their eyes, nod, shrug and smile in wordless communication. Mom starts explaining the menu’s unfamiliar items to a not-really-caring son. His sister’s smirk grows. The waiter approaches, reads the situation and addresses the son as “sir”. After some small talk, he suggests something the boy wants. The daughter asks some questions, orders and makes eye contact with her brother. Mom and dad order their wine and meals, apparently oblivious to what’s just happened.

As the evening progresses, the parent-child roles continue through conversations with the kids appearing to pay attention to their parents while nodding and smirking to each other. Occasionally the parents read the situation with glances and winks to each other. I didn’t perceive any intentional condescension on their part, just the inertia of parenthood superseding respect for the others at the table. Every now and then I heard real conversation with speakers and listeners respecting each other, no matter their age or role in the family.

The waiter, with a nod to the kids, returns with their meals first, but makes a show of asking who gets what. He treated them like adults, deferring to them and making suggestions in a way that didn’t seem like he was steering them. The inertia and history of parent-child relationships make this genetically almost impossible.

The waiter knows what many people, bless their hearts, don’t: We learn more when we pay attention to what people don’t say and how they don’t say it – than by simply taking the literal meaning of their sequential words.

Or, as two of my favorite philosophers have said:

“When you talk, you’re only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” – Dalai Lama

“You can observe a lot by watching.” – Yogi Berra