Are you paying attention?

Speaking of coffeeshops….

While sitting in one the other day, I observed a group of people obviously involved in some kind of meeting, surrounded by computers and tensely discussing what seemed like matters of some import. Every so often, I noticed that one person (I should mention, the only man in the group) seemed to be spending significantly more time e-mailing, texting, and even taking a phone call in the middle of the conversation. I could practically see the steam come out of the others’ ears

Now, I don’t want to make any tired generalizations about modern culture, manners, or the ills of technology. But this experience returned to mind while I was reading something about audience responsibility and rhetorical response… and for the first time I really thought about the expression “to pay attention.” So of course, I went to the OED and found the following definitions of the verb “to pay”:

  • to appease, pacify, satisfy
  • to give or transfer goods/money in return for goods or services, or in discharge of an obligation
  • to give what is due or deserved

And for attention:

  • earnest direction of the mind, consideration, or regard
  • practical consideration, observant care, notice

This common phrase, then, has some interesting underlying assumptions — that careful notice is what is due to a communicator, what is deserved by the one (or many) who puts forth a message. That service, in effect, demands recompense in the form of that seemingly simple but rare “earnest direction” of attention. If the attention owed is not paid, the transaction simply cannot go through. And the debt multiplies exponentially.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of audience responses lately — especially as we audiences are awash in political rhetoric that can all too often leave us feeling passive — and this phrase brings to mind yet again Krista Ratcliffe’s concept of rhetorical listening, “a stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in relation to any person, text, or culture; its purpose is to cultivate conscious identification in ways that promote productive conversation, especially but not solely cross-culturally” (Rhetorical Listening 25). This is more than mere granting of attention; it is an active participation in the work of communication, which can only occur under conditions of equal exchange.

So that guy playing on the iPhone wasn’t just rude — he was a thief of sorts, or perhaps just a cheat. By refusing to grant his attention, he  failed to hold up his side of the communicative bargain. His attention was being paid out everywhere but to his immediate colleagues — who couldn’t help but recognize the lack of value he placed on their conversation.

As far as I can tell, the only ways to repay such inattention are to refuse to listen in turn or to refuse to speak. Either way, there’s a breakdown in collaborative conversation, a rejection of the shared responsibility of rhetoric — and that’s a pretty high price to pay for a text message.

I can only hope he at least picked up the tab…

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2 thoughts on “Are you paying attention?

  1. This reminds me of that Hemingway quote you presented in class “When People Talk, Listen Completely. Most People Never Listen.” In French they say ‘faire attention’ and faire translates to make or do, which definitely conveys a different meaning.

    • (Thanks for paying attention, Lina. 🙂 You make a good point that the verb choice makes a big difference here — to make/do attention also places the responsibility on the audience, but in a way that sounds more like a choice, an act of creation, rather than something owed, which could imply unwillingness. But the make/do also seems to make the issue more about an individual act than a dynamic relationship…

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