The Great Attention Giver

Have you noticed that when you catch up with someone who’s been alone a bit too much, they can’t stop talking?   Sometimes it pours out of them, unedited.  Sometimes they’ll tell you the same story over and over.  They’ll say – did I tell you this already?  It’s because they’re not really paying attention to who they’re talking to.  It makes me curious, because if it doesn’t matter all that much who you’re talking to, why do you need a person at all?  Why not talk to a stuffed animal or to the mirror?  But we do need to be heard.

For years now I’ve realized that my main value to other people – to my family, friends and society at large – is the attention I give them.  Hearing what they have to say has much more value than anything I could possibly say myself.  With my children, who are still small and charming, it’s a particularly strong effect.  They want me too watch them, to see them, to hear them.  By the end of the day, my attention is exhausted.  Then, when my husband and other adults want the same audience service from me, it’s hard to give it.

Now, I’ve started this blog and i can see that nobody is reading it.  Probably nobody will ever read it because it’s the same as in the real world – people want others to listen.  There are far more people writing online then there is audience for them.  I am much more valuable as a blog reader, and possibly as a commenter on blog than as a blog writer.

The listening role is demanding, but rigid.  As a listener, you’re only valuable to the extent that you approve and sympathize.  Nobody likes a critical or bored listener. Given the limited output you’re required to provide, and the great demand for it, it’s strange how the role cannot be mass produced or mechanized somehow.  The other side – story-telling, jokes – have all been very successfully mechanized.  People watch TV for hours, even soapies, which are like gossip sessions about people who don’t exist.  But a recorded face of someone listening just doesn’t work well.


People paying attention in Scotland (cc Mount Pleasant Granary)


There are all these sayings to encourage people to stfu: speech is silver, silence is golden; only say what is true, kind and necessary; a man of words and not of deeds is like a garden full of weeds; brevity is the soul of wit; a silent fool is counted wise.  Most of these sayings are from the olden days, so it’s something from forever.

I think it’s okay?  When I was young, having sex with men seemed such an easy way to make them happy.  Now, listening carefully to people is such an easy way to make them happy.  When I feel the same urges myself – that I need to be heard – it feels so silly.  Why should people listen to more words when there are so many words out there already?  Maybe one day there’ll be a drug for it and people will stop talking like turning off a tap.

All this seems a bit creepy because sometimes people are genuinely interesting and it’s no hardship to listen. On the contrary.  The thing is, though, that even boring people need an audience sometimes.  I’m not sure why we all want to be heard.



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