The Attention Factor

My Dinner With Andre

As a freelancer I’ve spent many years (prior to the pandemic) working in coffee shops. As those who work in cafés know all too well: you become inadvertently and unavoidably privy to the conversations of the others sitting at nearby tables. That comes with its plusses and minuses, though largely the latter.

But one fascinating thing I’ve noticed, beyond some of the very unusual and personal topics discussed, is there tends to be a default dynamic at play in many of these meetings between people. 

Often one of the interlocutors dominates the discussion, while the other, or others, sit passively and do the listening. Put in a different way, one person receives most of the attention, while someone else does the giving. The frequency with which I’ve seen this over the years is staggering. It operates in people as if it were an unspoken contract, and often in excess: too much talking in one person, too much listening in another. 

I’ve often imagined the people involved unconsciously seeking out one another to play-out those specific, complimentary roles.

Certain traditional cultures have known for a long time that humans have an innate need to both give and receive attention. It’s a sort of nutrition. Just the right amount fulfills us. Too much giving or receiving (as anyone who’s been stuck listening to an interminable rambler who has been holed up for too long on their own, knows), throws us off. It can even make us grossly inefficient.

This is such a powerful factor in human affairs, that much of what we do, in fact, is driven by disguised attention motivations arising out of that need: both at the individual and collective levels. We often rationalize our desire for it—one look at the state of social media demonstrates that. And yet, in our modern culture, as with other tendencies, we’re largely unaware of it. At most we might give disapproving lip service to “attention-seeking” in overactive children or misbehaving adults. We don’t see the subtler, wider ranges of that tendency that operate daily in ourselves. 

Social interaction is a very good and necessary thing. Covid lockdowns have underscored that fact. But one also wonders: if we were more cognizant of our attention needs, and thus managed them better, how many of those asymmetrical café discussions—or other excessive reflexes born out of a similar deprivation—would need to take place?  And how much more selective might we become with whom, or what, we give our attention to—including those who may need it the most?