I knew I’d gone over to the dark side when my husband asked me to stop texting during dinner. I was just answering my daughter’s text message. He actually seemed somewhat annoyed, and I realized I had gotten snagged into the mindlessness of texting. Mindless, as opposed to mindful – where one is vividly aware of the moment. Mindless, in that I was paying no attention to whom I was with and where I was and the fact that in this case, he’d cooked dinner for us since I worked late. Mindless, in that the only thing I was thinking about was a conversation that could have waited. It was more like spending time not saying much of anything meaningful (one message was just ☺) rather than a conversation, but it’s what counts for time together these days.
I have written so many blogs about the impact of media on relationships, about how we don’t attend to the nonverbal cues that are 70 - 90 percent of emotional communication, how our interaction can become stereotyped (LOL!) and over-simplified, how via texting and email we don’t really know – or worse – we don’t really care about the response of the other person. I was doing it too, and I was sorry.
What of more value can we offer each other than undivided attention? To have someone really listen to you validates you. Imagine - there is nothing more important at that moment to someone else than paying attention to you. It invites you to open up. It doesn’t even have to be verbal. Snuggling can be full attention if you’re not making up the grocery list or texting at the same time.
Yet much of the time, as Shelly Turkle wrote in the NY Times Opinion section, 4/22/12, we all go around in our bubbles. We’re together and not together. Have you ever watched people at a dinner table, each on his or her own phone? Children have even asked that someone help get their parents off their Blackberry’s. There apparently is an art to appearing to make eye contact (the nonverbal message of listening) while texting someone else. As she says, “Technology-enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be. We want to move in and out of where we are because the thing we value most is control over where we focus our attention.”
Attention – that’s the nugget of gold. That’s part of what drew me to texting with my daughter. I had her attention! Who knew how long it would last, and when the chance would come again? We giveth attention and we taketh attention away. There’s not necessarily a sense of responsibility to each other. You might stay with me, or you might follow your attention elsewhere. We cheat on each other all the time. You think I'm here but I’m not. Of course I heard what you said. That doesn’t mean I really listened.
It takes work to actively listen to someone, which is why therapists like myself actually teach people “active listening,” to listen for understanding. Now, our technology makes it possible to do more than just not listen – we’re somewhere else, with someone else completely. Presence can be just an illusion. Hopefully, we want to take the time and trouble to be genuinely present in the relationships that matter to us. I do.