Are you even listening to me?: Miscommunication and the performance of attention

We spend a lot of time talking everyday, much of this in face-to-face communication (yes, even in spite of the rise of digital technologies). When we do so, we rely on the cooperation of another person. One way we expect them to cooperate is to dedicate sufficient amounts of mental energy toward processing our messages so that our speech is not reduced to carbon-dioxide-infused futility. We call this cooperation process “paying attention”.

You likely have very clear ideas about what it looks like when someone is listening to you (or when they’re not). You also probably didn’t even bat an eye at the idea that you could assess people’s current level of listening to you visually, even though strictly speaking this is not a direct way of getting that information. We tend to have pretty strong ideas about what it means to “pay attention”. If you think about it for a little bit, you might come up with things like:

  • Facing you (having their head or face directed in your general direction)
  • Making eye contact with you
  • Nodding
  • Making various short responses (for example, uh huh or mhmm)
  • Being silent, not talking while we’re talking
  • Making a relevant response immediately after we finish speaking

None of these, however, is the actual act of processing a message that we are referring to when we talk about “listening”. Instead, these are simply culturally-based methods of performing our attention for others. By “performing”, I don’t mean that we are doing anything disingenuous or ostentatious. When I say we are “performing our attention”, I simply mean that we are engaging in a cultural way of signaling to others that we are listening, even though that signal is itself not the act of listening. Because our conversation partners can’t observe the cognitive processes involved in listening, we perform attention as a means of cooperating.

We can demonstrate that the performance of attention and the act of listening are not the same when we simply consider our own actions. I’m sure you’ve had experiences of looking at someone as they speak and then finding that your thoughts drift off to other things like what you’ll do when the work day is finally over. Technically speaking you are still performing attention (even if you might be doing it less adeptly) but are not actually listening. You also know that it’s possible to listen without providing many of the signals that you are listening such as looking at someone’s eyes or face. Your cell phone is clear demonstration of this.

As a side note, I should mention that research into speech perception has demonstrated that we use visual input to help ourselves understand what our conversation partners mean. This is true on a number of levels. We use gestures for things like directions. We also get a sense of the other person’s emotional state through their facial expressions. Perhaps the most surprising way this is true is that our perception of sounds is actually affected by the visual input we receive. This is convincingly demonstrated by a phenomenon known as the McGurk Effect, which you can try for yourself in the video below. Thus, it’s not the case that what our eyes are doing is irrelevant to listening, but, in many cases, they are not entirely necessary for the task of listening (again think about the telephone).

If you’ve been socialized into the same system of attention performance as your conversation partner, you might find that you’re pretty good at reading their signals to know when they are or are not paying attention. However, because the performance of attention is in many ways simply a signal of listening (it is not wholly itself the act of listening), there is diversity in the way that people perform it. This is made particularly complex because the signals we use to perform attention such as eye contact are often signals for other things too.

Researchers have long noted that different cultures often have different methods for performing attention. In his book Language and interracial communication in the United States, George Ray reviews research showing that many black and white people in the United States have different patterns of eye contact in communication. He writes:

A typical eye contact pattern for European Americans is for listeners to look at speakers more than speakers look at listeners, just the reverse of the pattern for many African Americans (Majors, 1991; Ruscher, 2001). Thus, a kind of awkwardness may occur among interracial interactants as they may misinterpret patterns of eye contact for speakers and listeners (p. 56).

If white people are expecting eye contact while they are speaking, they may be disappointed by some of their black conversational partners who are upholding a different norm, in which it’s acceptable (perhaps expected) that they not maintain constant eye contact.

This is a frequent problem in multicultural classrooms, where white teachers often report feeling that children of other cultural backgrounds do not pay attention. Anne Lowell and Brian Devlin observed classrooms in Australia with teachers of European descent and students of Aboriginal descent. The teachers in these classrooms frequently commented that the Aboriginal students tended not to pay attention in class. Lowell and Devlin concluded that this was a misperception because the students could repeat back, often with striking detail, what they had in fact been listening to.

The misunderstanding arose from the fact that the students did not engage in the performance of attention expected by the white teachers: sitting still, maintaining a constant orientation toward the teacher, and responding immediately after the teacher posed a question. These aspects of performing attention were not part of what the Aboriginal children were familiar with from their own cultural experience. In other words, the Aboriginal performance of attention differed starkly from the European-Australian one. According to Lowell and Devlin, the Aboriginal children’s culture had made them accustomed to viewing conversation as something that could take place without the need for looking at faces. They also were not socialized into a practice of responding immediately to adults and were instead allowed to answer at their own pace. The (mis)perception that children are not paying attention to their teachers, however, can have severe educational consequences for those children, and it can also be quite frustrating for teachers.

In addition to cultural differences in terms of how attention is performed, there is also ambiguity in the ways we use to signal our attention to others. Another way many people use to perform attention is to use short verbal responses like mhmm or uh huh (we might also include nodding in this). Daniel Maltz and Ruth Borker believe that there are differences between men and women in the United States in terms of how these types of minimal responses are interpreted. In this view, women often use and interpret minimal responses as a way of performing attention, showing their cooperation in listening and encouraging the speaker to go on. Conversely, men often use and interpret minimal responses as a form of agreement. This mismatch in meanings for mhmm or uh huh might explain men’s tendency to use minimal responses less frequently than women as well as women’s perception that men are not paying attention to them when they speak.

We can also consider the ambiguity of eye contact. Many people interpret it as fulfilling the expectation for the performance of attention and hence a sign of respect. However, there are certainly other ways to view eye contact. For example, looking at someone directly in the eyes can be viewed as a display of power or defiance. A commonly reported miscommunication between white teachers and their minority students involves how children should perform attention when being addressed directly (especially if this is for wrongdoing). Heayoung Yang and Mary Benson McMullen describe a situation where the son of Korean parents in a US school was misinterpreted by his teacher as not paying attention. However, the boy insisted that he was listening but was simply following the Korean cultural practice of children not looking directly into the eyes of an adult who is scolding them (as a side note, it turns out that there was an additional miscommunication in which the Korean boy misinterpreted the teacher’s choice to speak with him individually as scolding). In Korea (or, in this case, in a home in the US that is influenced by Korean cultural norms), a child making direct eye contact with an adult who was scolding them would likely be interpreted as a show of defiance. However, the reverse is usually true in the US where children are expected to make eye contact to show they are being attentive to what the adult is saying to them.

Taking into consideration all of this information about diverse practices for performing attention considerably complicates the act of interpreting others’ listening behavior. However, as I have already alluded to, these issues have often unacknowledged but serious consequences. One such area where this is observable is in the classroom, where teachers who have students from other cultures may find that their immediate perceptions of their students’ behavior is misleading. What appears to be lack of attention may be another cultural method for performing attention. Because white people tend to be over-represented in educational institutions as teachers and administrators, children from minority backgrounds are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of these misperceptions.

Considerations of diverse practices for signaling attention are also important in our personal relationships. We may often experience the sensation that people, especially those from cultural backgrounds different from our own, are not paying attention to us when we speak. Of course, I’m not suggesting that people are always listening to you. Sometimes, they most certainly are not. However, the point here is that it’s important to consider on what basis we have arrived at this judgment. It might be better to ask the person to explain in their words what they understood you to be saying. You may be surprised to find that they were, in fact, listening.

Print references

Lowell, A. & Devlin, B. (1999). Miscommunication between Aboriginal students and their non-Aboriginal teachers in a bilingual school.In S. May (Ed.), Indigenous community-based education (pp. 137-159). Clevendon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Majors, R. (1991). Nonverbal behaviors and communication styles among African Americans. In R. Jones (Ed.), Black psychology (3rd ed., pp. 269-294). Hampton, VA: Cobb & Henry.

Ray, G. B. (2009). Language and interracial communication in the United States: Speaking in black and white. New York: Peter Lang.

Ruscher, J. (2001). Prejudiced communication: A social psychological perspective. New York: Guilford.

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Posted in Language and gender, Linguistic diversity, Miscommunication and communication difficulties
One comment on “Are you even listening to me?: Miscommunication and the performance of attention

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