by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on February 14 2020



Padraig Colman

To pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself. Whenever a man so concentrates his attention – on a landscape, a poem, a geometrical problem, an idol, or the True God – that he completely forgets his own ego and desires, he is praying. The primary task of the schoolteacher is to teach children, in a secular context, the technique of prayer.

WH Auden


These days, nobody ever listens to anyone else. This may be the case everywhere in the world but I am particularly noticing it during my stay in London. People no longer seem to be able to communicate effectively face-to-face. I initially found it disconcerting to find a constant aural background of solo pedestrians, who appeared to be wearing hearing aids, endlessly talking in mad monologues. After a while, I realised that these apparently deaf soliloquisers were in reality talking on their mobile phones as they walked. There was somebody else on the other end but whether there was any communication is another matter. People sitting face-to-face were also soliloquising.  Jean Piaget observed that if you put several preschoolers together, they jabber away to themselves rather than to one another.


Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.” I have observed many failed dialogues. People talk over each other. One interlocutor asks the other a question. The other attempts an answer but is quickly interrupted. Something in the answerer’s response triggers a connection with the first person’s experience and he/she embarks on a digression on that only to be interrupted by the second person. This has happened many times to me and I have developed a technique to deal with persistent interruptions.


I just keep ploughing on, talking and talking until the other person’s face displays utter panic when he or she realises that I am saying something and splutters to a halt. He/she still does not really take on board what I am saying and gets a distracted look in the eyes. When I try to initiate another conversational thread, she/he often says “sorry” because he/she is deafened by distraction. In Tender Is the Night, F Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “Intermittently she caught the gist of his sentences and supplied the rest from her subconscious, as one picks up the striking clock in the middle with only the rhythm of the first uncounted strokes lingering in the mind.”


I am not the first to notice that this kind of attention deficit and ‘conversation’-hogging has become commonplace. I have recently read a book about it – You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy. She ties in this phenomenon with the constant use of smart phones and tablets and warns about the serious consequences.  “If someone tells a story that takes longer than thirty seconds, heads bow, not in contemplation but to read texts…” There is no thought of letting a joke slowly build to a big payoff. “Think about a time when you were trying to tell a story to someone who was obviously uninterested; maybe they were sighing or their eyes were roaming around the room. What happened? Your pacing faltered, you left out details, or maybe you started babbling irrelevant information or overshared in an effort to regain their attention. You probably trailed off while the other person smiled blandly or nodded absently.” You probably felt a little humiliated, diminished. The average amount of time people devote to listening to one another during their waking hours has gone down from 42 percent to 24 percent.


There is indubitably a link with widespread screen addiction. The serious consequence is loneliness. In a 2018 survey of twenty thousand Americans, almost half said they did not have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend, on a daily basis. About the same proportion said they often felt lonely and left out even when others were around. Compare that to the 1980s when similar studies found only 20 percent said they felt that way. Nilli Lavie, a professor of psychology and brain sciences at UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, has established a clear link between constant phone use and depression.


There are ways to combat this distraction – some form of CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) using practical exercises to replace bad habits with better ones. I have always been a phone-phobe and rarely engage in telephone conversations. I resisted having a mobile phone for a long time and mainly use it now to call a cab and check the time. I have been lucky enough to resist the lures of smart phones and i-pads but I have had these devices thrust upon me by well-meaning addicts. I find smart devices useful for reading the news when I wake up and am drinking my first mug of tea. I don’t watch TV or listen to the radio. I have never used Twitter. There have been times when I have got carried away with Facebook but I reserve a special time for checking my FB interactions and I don’t do Facebook on my phone. I keep my number of ‘friends’ low so that I am not inundated with notifications. If I am eating out with friends, I keep my phone well-hidden.  There is no likelihood of an emergency that would be helped by my immediate input. A study by psychologists at the University of Essex found that the sight of a phone on the table makes those sitting around the table feel more detached and reluctant to talk about anything important. There is a spectre at the feast.

Device dependency has many of the same behavioral, psychological, and neurobiological components as substance abuse. There is even a poet addressing this issue: Charly Cox. Her book Validate Me is subtitled A life of code dependency. Another writer has suggested that one day the excessive use of mobile devices in public, which has become ‘normal’, will one day be regarded with the same distaste that smokers are today.


Kathy Murphy offers some advice on how to be a better listener. Listening is the simplest way to show someone you respect them. When people feel the urgency to always sell themselves, they tend to exaggerate, which lowers the level of discourse and fosters cynicism. People generally don’t want you to solve any problems they present to you; they want you to listen sympathetically. Sympathy does not mean interrupting them to say you had the same problem. Not everything needs to be said as you are feeling it. Murphy tells a story about visitors to the home of the wonderful writer Eudora Welty noting that she didn’t have a TV or radio on in the background. She did not talk on the phone. There were no distractions. The focus was on the guests and they carried away a lasting impression of her courtesy. Welty no doubt found material for her writing from listening to her guests.