Patricia Goldman, as vice chairperson of the National Transportation Safety Board, used to tell a story about how poorly airline passengers listen. She says that one flight attendant, who was frustrated by passenger inattentiveness during her what-to-do-in-an-emergency talk, changed the wording. This is what she actually said: "When the mask drops down in front of you, place it over your naval and continue to breathe normally." Not a single passenger noticed.
This anecdote doesn't surprise me one bit. Osman, one of my friends who was an English teacher used to test his students. While he was explaining something, he would, using exactly the same tone of dull voice, throw in a random or non sequitur phrase and see anybody was listening. It would sound something like this, "Okay, everybody open your workbooks. Last class, we were talking about past progressive tense. I'm wearing red socks today. Can anybody give me an example of past progressive tense?"
I asked him later, "What did the students say?"
"Nothing, they just kept staring at me," he frowned in disgust. "like cows."
Add chewing gum to most classes and nearly every teacher can appreciate this imagery.
I had this friend, we can all her, Pauline, who had an annoying habit of tuning a person out while they were speaking. She didn't hide or feign attention at all- which is one of the often tiresome precepts of social intercourse. While somebody might be sharing some deep confidence, say the death of a grandparent, she could easily turn to another person and begin speaking about something else. Or, Pauline could get up in the middle of some story and walk away, leaving the person sitting, in the middle of a sentence, open mouthed and confused.
Other times, Pauline would interrupt and take the conversation into a completely different subject. At the best of times, you could see that she was paying absolutely no attention but preparing what she was going to say. Although it was quite amusing to watch this rudeness when it happened to anybody else, I finally became exasperated and pointed her habit out to her.
"Oh, I know I do it. But I don't have to listen. I know what people are going to say."
That isn't so much about paying attention. That is about recognizing certain social conventions and abiding by them. Failing to stay focused, in this case, is probably an excuse for anti-social behavior.
Although I don't believe I am guilty of quite so flagrant violation as that, I have fallen off the wagon as much as any average person. I know my weaknesses. For example, if I am in a public place with a friend, having a heart to heart, I cannot be facing a television. And in Turkey, there are televisions in nearly every public area. It is an impossible situation. I cannot even make convincing eye-contact or at some critical point in the other person's confessional, I can easily be distracted by an fireballed explosion or tantalizing bit of drama.
At one brief period of my life, I had no television. Yeah, imagine that if you can. I somehow survived but there was one very interesting effect. When I would go to my corner bar, I couldn't keep my hungry eyes off the television there in the corner. The colors were so extraordinarily brilliant, Much more than dull, gray reality. It was like taking hallucinogenics. And if, on any particular night at the bar, there had been a stabbing, shooting or violent passionate lovemaking on my table, I would have been a lousy witness. It took every ounce of mental effort merely to keep my mouth completely shut.
Perhaps that is the key to problems with listening and paying attention. In our modern life, with so much hustle and bustle, we are required, at least theoretically, to stay focused more than humans were ever meant to. So, something's got to give.
Additionally, nowadays, there is so much less time for reflection and contemplation. This tiny bit of solitude allows us to carry on a pleasant bit of conversation in our head. To slow down our thoughts to a reasonable and reasoning speed. But in modern days, every second is filled with ideas- much of which is merely noise or advertising- and we are meant to jump from thought to thought at a very unnatural speed. All of this, I suspect, undermines out ability to listen- to stay focused and pay attention.
Not everything is, of course, worthy of our full attention. Even thirty seconds of it. Perhaps this is why commercials should always be short; by the time we realize that the information being thrust in our ears and eyes is completely unimportant, the advertising is over, having stolen a little of our time with mindless distraction.
And sometimes subjects -or, more precisely, the presentations of certain topics- are just too boring to focus on, especially when we live in a world that is in desperate competition to grab our attention. Like being surrounded by a crowd of shouting, crying, moving, mewing and puking toddlers, we are apt to overlook the obedient, quiet and tender ones.
When I was in university, I had this professor of psychology- a subject that I had loved- and he lectured a class of 250 students in an auditorium. It was, without debate, one of the worst managed classes I have ever encountered. He would show up, (only a few inches tall) at the front of the lecture hall and begin droning on and on, in the same monotone voice about B.F. Skinner and all the other behaviorists. That was the only part I stayed awake in anyway.
Meanwhile, when comparing other professors with my friends after class, I learned that there was actually a professor who had come to class in a mouse costume. A mouse costume? My professor could have been a remote controlled statue for as much as he gestured. By the end of the term, I never wanted to hear the very word "psychology" again. He was an unforgivable anti-educator, as far as I was concerned. Psychology needn't have been boring and any instructor worth his salt should have enough enthusiasm for the material to enliven it, after all. So I suppose, presentation is essential if people are required to pay attention.
Sometimes all of us need help in staying focused. Forcing people to become active listeners is usually the way to go. Isn't that the purpose of rhetorical questions? The ancient speakers understood this, why can't we? WHY? Has advertising hijacked our ability to use rhetorical questions?
Ok, perhaps that is overdoing it a tad, but I did say the "proper"- meaning, careful and judicious use of rhetorical questions. As James Nathan Mille said,"There is no such thing as a worthless conversation, provided you know what to listen for. And questions are the breath of life for a conversation."
Aside from the social aspects of listening, why should it be important to listen? Because buried under all that generally flashy but empty information, there could be a fact, an essential detail, a tidbit of history or a remnant of feeling that could change you way of seeing the world or your own life. There is a Turkish proverb that says "If speaking is silver, then listening is gold."
And here is the best example I can think of. As Amanda Ripley writes in her admirable book, "Thinking the Unthinkable:"
The National Transportation Safety Board has found that passengers who read the safety information card are less likely to get hurt in an emergency. In a plane crash at Pago Pago three years before the Tenerife accident [with 583 fatalities, the crash was the deadliest accident in aviation until September 11, 2001], all but 5 of the 101 passengers died.
All the survivors reported that they has read the safety information and listened to the briefing. They exited over the wing, while other passengers went toward other more dangerous but traditional exits and died.