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February 27, 2010, at 9:45 pm — Blogs / / /

Attention: Please turn off your cell phones

One of my biggest pet peeves is the multi-tasker. I am simultaneously envious of and spiteful of their ability to juggle several different tasks at once, probably because the extent of my circus skills is chewing gum and walking at the same time (and not even on tightrope!). The amount of time I would likely save by emailing while texting while reading the morning news could probably afford me a lot more sleep, but truth be told, for tasks involving communication and other people, I just can’t (as in physically and on principle) bring myself to do it.

In a time when ADHD diagnoses are as frequent as the release of new iPhone apps, it’s hard to determine whether technology is causing shorter attention spans or whether heightened senses are demanding more and more distractions. The chicken-and-egg dilemma is something that is, however, perhaps secondary to the mere fact that it exists. Having a conversation at the dinner table isn’t what it used to be, with cell phones, BlackBerries, TVs and other distractions replacing real human back-and-forth banter. And emails? If they’re not received, read and replied to immediately, messages are as good as irrelevant within a span of minutes. And as a direct result, listening suffers.

Listening.

We differentiate listening from hearing for a reason, but this reason is becoming increasingly drowned out in the milieu of technological prowess. Nowadays, listening is an art form. Not that it wasn’t before, but now the kind of “art” it represents is more baroque than modern, and messages typically have to come in bite-sized, flashy chunks in order to catch our attention. The truth about listening these days is that multitasking has made listening a skill to be honed, whereas before it was a given. Today, we pay attention more to not what is being said but how it’s being said – and marketing companies know this all too well.

More than half of the battle for marketing companies is getting their consumers’ attention. In an ideal world, the messages would be both quick and quality, but because we make snappy judgments on a regular basis, the emphasis often lands unevenly on the former. Our decision-making process, then, is put in danger. How are we to make educated decisions if we are only half as informed as we should be (and sometimes don’t even realize it)? We search for convenience and quick fixes, oftentimes not because we’re careless but because we assume that everyone else and everything else is moving at a similarly quick pace, and it’s easier to assume than to question.

On a larger scale, then, it becomes more obvious why communication issues arise so frequently in political and social forces. Talk about multitasking; there are so many tasks at hand that it’s difficult to properly address any one of them. It matters less, to an extent, what is being presented as a problem; it matters more how these problems are presented — this is what will determine what is priority. This is how we listen.

What are the most pressing issues? Americans would argue unemployment. What is the chief topic of interest being discussed on The Hill? Health care. Though the two issues are intertwined, how the White House is packaging its efforts makes it seem as though it isn’t listening. Reassure citizens of their primary worry and everything else will follow. Listening becomes more about “the gist” of things, even on a larger scale, and struggling to balance too many things at once without really listening instead of assuming can have detrimental effects.

Spouses argue, parents are frustrated, governed peoples feel neglected. The loss of a personal touch vis-à-vis interpersonal relationships can only be partially blamed on the ever-growing influx of information. The other part of the issue is a dependency on “the gist” and a failure to be proactive and really comprehend topics in their entirety. And listening at anything but an active rate is simply hearing.

Multitasking, the art of dividing our attention among multiple tasks, is a skill. But the next time someone tries to unleash their “skill” at the dinner table, kindly ask them to put it away — they’ll thank you for it later.

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