Uni-directional (Issue 708)

In which we are reminded to overcome one set of survival instincts so we can pay attention to another.

The night before a big banking industry conference began, I met a friend for dinner at a wonderful Armenian restaurant. (Always looking for good hummus, you know.) We had a wonderful meal and a terrific conversation; we hadn’t seen each other face-to-face for over a year. It was like a movie: we sat comfortably in a circular table booth at the back of the restaurant, a small jazz ensemble playing jazz standards at the front of the restaurant. Terrific.

During the course of the meal I noticed that she was wearing her hair differently than I remembered it and I asked about it. She paused for a moment and pulled back her hair to reveal her right ear.

“Hearing aids,” she said, her face showing a little disappointment.

“Both ears,” I asked?

“Yes,” she responded, “runs in the family.”

Runs in our generation, I thought. Too many hours of rock n roll without ear protection. But that’s a rant for another day.

“How does it work?”

“Like this,” she said, pulling out a small remote control device.

“It has several settings,” she said, changing the settings. “Here, it’s omni-directional. It amplifies sound from anywhere in the room.”

“Here,” she said, changing the setting, “… it’s uni-directional. It picks up what’s directly in front of me and is particularly useful in a place like this when I’m trying to hear you, and only you.”

The conference began the next day and I wished I’d had a switch like that for my own ears. One is bombarded with sounds and sights from all angles. The more exotic the sound or the shinier the moving object, the harder it is to pay attention to the person in front of us.

And, our conversation partners notice. When my eyes diverted briefly to something behind them or when I was distracted by a nearby sound, they noticed. Their eyes flickered or they looked away slightly.

We’ve all learned to adjust to this when our conversation partners are momentarily distracted. We give them a moment to look and refocus. If they are very smooth, our conversations continue to flow.

But (assuming that our physical safety is assured), there is just that moment of distraction that says to our conversation partners, “you’re not really that important. I’m still scanning the field.”

Yes, I know this is a species survival skill, protecting us from attack. And yes, it’s possible that, even in a large banking conventions, one could suffer “attacks,” for example, from certain salespeople whose impulse control is so low that they can’t stifle themselves long enough for someone else’s conversation to finish.

But, like my friend, we need switches (ours, in our heads) that change our hearing and our vision from omni- directional to uni-directional during our discussions so that the people with whom we are speaking feel like they are the only people on the planet from the beginning of our conversations to the end.

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