Yes, of course I realize you are reading this, but are you concentrating? Will you be able to retain whatever information I may present here? Be honest. You should answer truthfully because there is no right or wrong response. I welcome casual readers as well as dedicated ones.
So … are you concentrating?
I knew the answer before I asked the question. This is the age of partial attention; my best expectation must be gaining your incomplete attention. I will just have to be satisfied with that.
Years ago I could have expected your undivided attention. Why? Because most individuals tended to prefer doing one thing at a time; viewers viewed, listeners listened and readers read. That was the recommended approach, the approach drilled into students in the elementary grades.
I can still hear Miss McDuff in sixth grade, rapping her pointer on the classroom floor and asking the class: "People, may I have your undivided attention?"
She always addressed the group as "people" rather than "class." At the time I thought it was a little odd, but it must have been her way of indicating she was looking for mature reactions. Miss McDuff didn’t just expect undivided attention. She demanded it, and she seemed to be quite successful in obtaining it. She wasn’t alone; that was the strategy adopted by teachers.
It must have worked. Why else would I still be able to recite one of her key lessons in European geography, which goes like this: "The Rhine, the Rhone, the Danube and the Po/ Rise in the Alps and away they go."
For most of the 20th century, giving undivided attention was the key element in the personality of the majority of people. From elementary school through graduate school, the common pattern called for focusing on one task, completing it and then proceeding to the next matter.
That applied in the workplace, too. The most valued employees, in office or factory, were usually those who were dedicated to finishing whatever assignment they were working on and then turning to the next.
To be perfectly honest, I must admit that I never behaved exactly like one of those people. I believe I acquired a reputation for reliability even though I developed a pattern of doing more than one thing at a time. I trace that back to the practice of listening to the radio while doing my homework. The parents were dismayed, believing I could never master Spanish or trigonometry if those subjects were competing with the radio for my attention. (In regard to Spanish and trig, time proved the parents to be correct, although I managed better with the other academic disciplines.) The habit persists; as I write this, the radio is providing background music.
I was multitasking before that term was created and soared to its present position near the top of everyone’s list of prevailing behaviors. The growth of multitasking is directly proportional to the type and quality of distractions. There are so many and they are far more seductive than before; the radio is a benign diversion compared with those of the 21st century that have seized the attention of millions of people everywhere.
I used to consider the computer a huge distraction, connected as it is to a network that enables the user to prowl around endlessly while appearing busy. Of course, all its good qualities are far more beneficial than browsing, but good people do find it to be a captivating method of spending their time in an alternative pursuit. In other words, they are giving incomplete attention to some task which might merit their full concern.
It has now become obvious that the smartphone, with stunning powers and an ever-growing body of users, has captured the coveted position as the most intrepid distraction. It has emerged as the primary tool contributing to limited attention in the home, at the workplace, in cars and wherever people eat, shop, work or play. Is it a sinister appliance? Of course not. But for those who qualify as distractible, it is very effective, a versatile and essential device.
Do you ever have the feeling that in certain circumstances people do not comprehend what you are saying? You know they understand English, but they seem detached and disinterested. It isn’t your fault. It has nothing to do with you and the dialogue you are attempting. They are very busy, and in that condition they are giving you their divided attention. Get used to it.
Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.
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