Paying attention – heeding the other – no small thing in our society, we demand it from ourselves and others from an early age and I am left to wonder why. For paying attention is not really about actually noticing someone else or what they’re saying or doing. When we in these United States speak of paying attention, what we really mean is that you must heed me in a way that lets me know you’re heeding me. Otherwise, you are not “paying attention” to me.
Spouses demand it from each other. Parents from children although children do not have the right to expect it from parents. Teachers certainly expect it from students. And here is the rub.
A little guy in my family is not one for paying attention. Never has been. To the chagrin of his parents and others, he probably never will be. But I am not to sussed by his supposed lack of attention for one very simple reason: this beloved boy-child comes from a very long line of inattentive ancestors and I am chief among them.
Don’t get me wrong: social skills matter. But I have to ask whether they matter as much as we think they should. When it comes to school, the point (it seems to me) to paying attention is to learn. Turns out this grand son actually does quite well in school with his subjects. But he does not do well in communicating to the teacher that he is present.
Given that he’s doing well, he must actually be paying attention to the subject matters at hand (either that or he was simply born knowing his school subjects, which, while I’d like to think he’s that smart, seems highly unlikely). So it seems to me that his problem is that somehow, either with eye contact or its lack most likely, or with moving about or talking with other students or drawing when he’s supposed to be ‘listening’, the teacher is interpreting his behavior as inattentiveness when really, he’s hearing everything she says, or enough at least to teach him what she wants him to know.
So what is the problem? From my own extensive experience, I conclude that when it comes to attention, perception is everything. So often am I perceived by others to not be paying attention to them. You’d have to ask them why they think so. Maybe it’s because I’ll often be looking somewhere else. Maybe it’s because I seem to be doing something else. Maybe it’s because I do not offer the expected response or when I’m listening especially attentively, I offer no response at all because I am still listening, waiting, for you. That’s all speculation on my part.
But I can tell you that my hearing is just fine and I hear it all (sometimes I wish I didn’t, but that’s another story).
Maybe it is a character flaw not to give folks the response they seek when we’re communicating, whether it’s eye contact, head nods or other non-verbal prompts, or verbal engagement. And if someone goes to the extreme on avoiding those things, I get that it’s a problem.
But the daily input of information can be overwhelming. And our world leaves little room for quiet. So me and my kind have a tendency, even amidst our own talking, to create our own quiet spaces inside our own minds simply because it’s restful there.
But don’t worry. We hear you. Really. Just look at our test scores.