viewpoint. brett hetherington

Conversus interruptus

Selective semi-listening. Fading in and out of the conversation. Attention-divided syndrome. Texting while talking. Missing the point. Ignorance-bliss. Even not paying attention to your own words when you are the one speaking them. “Is that my mobile ringing?” “Were you just saying saying something about something?”

I propose a new verb: keywording = to only notice a few key words in someone's spoken sentence. Eg, ”Are you keywording me?” [ie. Are you only half-hearing me?]

Politicians and PR people have been doing a similar thing (intentionally) in the media for years: answering the question that they want to answer rather than the one that has actually been asked. It is becoming just as common in daily life to go about keywording each other. The best laid ideas can just float away unheeded.

When we stop paying genuine attention, we stop paying attention to the words used by those who govern us. So when we hear the word “austerity” we accept it instead of realising what it really means: our elected representatives selling parts of public hospitals to private companies so they can profit from our illness. We hear the words “budgetary responsibility” and we don't stop to think that it means continuing to allow tax evasion for the richest and their businesses while public servants' salaries are slashed.

As George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright and essayist, once wrote, “The problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred.”

Re-reading the great Primo Levi's “The Reawakening” a while ago I was reminded like a glass of ice water in the face that we have this human need to be understood. And when I say ‘understood' I don't just mean comprehended through language. I mean in an empathetic sense of the word: to be heard and to be recognised as speaking important truths – important because they are human experiences that must be felt and identified with, by fellow humans.

My struggles communicating in a second language are tiny compared to Levi's fear that his account of his year in the Auschwitz concentration camp would be ignored or not believed. But I want to live my life (and I hope others too) with Terentius' maxim – Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto. In English: I am a human being, so nothing human is strange to me. Catalan: Sóc un ésser humà; això fa que rés humà em sigui aliè. Spanish: Hombre soy, nada humano me es ajeno.

In other words, a variety of human experience always has something to relate to. Live as a good listener and verbaliser, as that is the ideal for successful communication, I tell myself. I know this is a strong mutual reasons for my relationship with my partner (wife), which has endured and thrived for more than 20 years.

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