When in the course of human events — like a long marriage, say — people begin to notice things about each other. “Things like bad breath in the morning, throwing their clothes down on the floor, the daily occurrences,” my friend Paula says.
Things like distraction.
You know, when you’re telling your spouse an absolutely fascinating story about your best friend’s cousin’s creepy ex-husband and how he’s in the throes of a midlife crisis and has taken up company with a multi-tattooed twenty-something head case, which another friend said she should have suspected because she saw him jogging shirtless on the hike-and-bike trail and she’s going to be watching out for that kind of aberrant behavior much more closely in the future. Stories like that, with intricate detail about personal appearances, hygiene, psychological state, judgments about whether certain people should be eliminated from the human race or merely shunned for eternity. The whole damned human condition, with all its minutiae and color and infinite variety!
So, there you are, right in the middle of a long, fascinating story and you reach a point where an interested listener would be panting and begging you for more details — like, how many tattooes, did he look flabby while shirtless, is anybody pregnant, how your best friend’s cousin is coping and whether she’s in therapy and, if so, with whom — and … nothing. No reaction. Nada. A too-long silence.
Your suspicions are instantly aroused, so you listen carefully. There, over the phone and in the background, you can distinctly hear something — those telltale soft clicks. He’s on his computer! He’s probably reading his damned email! He isn’t listening to you. Not really.
“Am I boring you?” you ask, which is pretty polite, given that you want to slam down the phone and yank the cord out of the wall.
Oh, no, he says. Of course not! He was just … well … he had work to do, so … and you were talking … and he didn’t think you’d notice and … well, you know.
“How do you always know when I’m distracted?” my husband wants to know, like that’s a hard answer or something. I mean, let me count the ways. Rhythm is off. Silences are long. Laughter or exclamations of “No! He didn’t!” do not occur on time. Gaze — if the other person is present in the flesh — is vacant.
How could I not notice?
“Well, I was wondering about that,” my husband said. “So I set up a little experiment on it.”
He had, as it turned out, talked to someone over the phone under two conditions: Once, while doing intricate mathematical problems as quickly as possible. The second time, without the math calculations, with full attention. After listening to a recording, he was able to pinpoint his behaviors when distracted.
All of which got us into a discussion about what difference it makes if distraction is voluntary (reading your damned email, for example) or not (other stresses in your life are compelling your attention). It was all the same, he kept saying. No, it was completely different, I told him. Intention was everything. When someone is reading his email while talking to you, he’s deliberately withholding himself. No, yes, yes, no, shut up, yes, no.
“You’re wrong,” my husband said. “You want to be close to the other person, but you’re just not paying attention.”
I told him that only a man could have uttered that totally ridiculous, contradictory sentiment. You want to be close to the person to whom you’re not paying attention? My head was beginning to ache, just thinking about it — like trying to figure out one of those Escher drawings that defy logic and are harmful to your peace of mind.
So I started doing math problems in my mind. Really intricate ones. Sometimes, distraction is the only way to go.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)