The Lost Art of Paying Attention
It is not actually accurate to say that paying attention is an ‘art’, albeit a lost one. It is a skill that can be learned, improved and, of course, forgotten and neglected by disuse. I would go so far as to say our culture has a crisis of not paying attention. If you have ever been talking to a friend on the phone, only to suddenly find your friend in a conversation with someone other than you, say the dry cleaner, the post office clerk or his or her child, then you know what I mean. Rather than paying full attention to the conversation at hand, they are doing what is politely called “multitasking” by giving you only a portion of their attention, their family member gets part attention and their errands and various others who come and go during your conversation receive an additional part. (Multitasking is not all that it cracks up to be. Usually it is an excuse to be rude.)
A recent article by Prof. Stuart Green in the WSJ entitled, “I’m Banning Laptops From My Classroom” (1) is another case in point. So frustrated is he by the students in his class surfing the net, texting, internet shopping or playing video games during class time that he plans to pull the plug. No more laptops. By the tone of the comments to his article, he is not alone in his views. Of course, it is not that easy these days since there are always smart phones to pick up the slack.
Have we raised a generation of young people with such short attention spans that they can’t spend one hour focusing on their college professor and the class interactions? The simple answer is yes, we have. Not only are many young people of the “electronic generation” (my term) unable to pay attention in class, they have trouble paying attention at all anywhere. Their other characteristics include becoming bored quickly, being easily distracted and in fact, seeking distractions and requiring constant stimulation.
Hence my lament that we as a culture have lost the fine art and skill of simply paying full and undivided attention to anyone and anything. We have a collective case of Attention Deficit Syndrome. No one really pays attention anymore.
I suggest a crash course in re-learning or, in the case of the younger folks, learning for the first time how to pay attention, how to give someone full and exclusive attention. When talking on the phone, do not do anything else. (Radical, I know.) Do not play video games during meetings, do not talk on the phone while running errands, listen actively and intently to whomever is talking to you. In fact, for your friend or family member’s next birthday give them a certificate granting them one full hour of your unreserved, focused, and undivided attention. Do that and, as Mark Twain said, “It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”
Linda Johnston, MD
(1) Prof. Stuart Green – I’m Banning Laptops From My Classroom. The Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2016