The Power of Attention

I was talking to a stripper recently, and she told me that a lot of guys pay just to talk to her all night. That's it - they come in, talk, and give her money. Some of her clients come in on a regular basis just to talk, kind of like they are visiting the therapist every week or two.  I recently heard a similar story from a friend's trip to Vegas, where an acquaintance racked up a $1500 bill at the strip club by talking to a stripper all night. This is a good looking, cool guy who is engaged to an attractive woman (ok, she's a cold bitch). But yet something was missing from his life such that he would spend over a grand for a few hours of attention. It's interesting that people are so starved for something, and they don't know what that something is, and they think it's physical connection or sex. But once they get that attention focused on them, they realize that attention is what they want, that attention is what they are starving for.

Why can't we get that kind of attention in our everyday lives? To be blunt, most of our interactions are surprisingly shallow. I was recently at a dinner party held by a good friend, and there were only about ten people there. I knew most of the people in the room pretty well. Yet, the conversation stayed at a pretty shallow level. People were trying to say entertaining things, and not to create an honest connection with each other. I actually left feeling more disconnected than when I came, and somewhat disappointed in myself. Mostly because I had expected connection to come to me, rather than trying to create it.

A lot of our daily interactions are surprisingly scripted, with little real emotion or vulnerability.

"How are you doing?"
"Good! You?"

And, in most cases, neither person is just "good;" there's always something a lot deeper or more vulnerable that we could say. But we don't say it, for fear that we will offend the other person, or seem negative, or tell them too much such that they won't like us or want to talk to us any more. So we stay in the "safe" zone, which actually just isolates even further. And then we end up "hungry," but we can't quite put our finger on what we want. Except that we feel lonely and disconnected.

So why not go to a therapist if we want attention? After all, that's what they are supposed to do; you pay to talk to them. First of all, there is still some stigma around seeing a mental health professional. If I go to a therapist, I am admitting that there is something wrong with me. Plus, whenever I go to a therapist, I feel like they are trying to fix my problems, rather than truly listening to me. "Tell me about your relationship with your parents," they say. And, sure, I want to talk about my relationship with my parents. There are a lot of things that happened while I was growing up that led to me becoming the person that I am right now, and there are a lot of skeletons in that closet. But, right now, I just want to be heard. I just want to feel like someone is listening to me, and cares about what I have to say.

So what's the solution? Our attention is constantly being diverted, and shifted, and pulled off of other people by all of the distractions of modern society. Emails, texts, app notifications, etc…. They are all great, but they constantly pull us out of focusing all of our attention on any one thing. The result is that we end up with fuzzy or diffused attention. One of the most interesting things about going a year without a smartphone was that when I was hanging out with someone, I could put all of my attention on them while we were together (or get them to focus all of their attention on me). We spend so much time "around" other people without actually being "with" them. Right now, I'm writing this blog post as I sit next to someone I know. I'm writing on my computer while he watches video on his iPhone.

So, here's an experiment to try that might create more connection. The next time you are spending one-on-one time with someone, agree to shut off your smartphones for half an hour or an hour and just be present with each other. Then try to focus all of your attention on the other person for 15 minutes, and see what happens. You might be surprised by what happens. And maybe you'll feel some real connection.