Think about that person. You know, the one that you can’t not notice on the bus. They make themselves oblivious to the contents of their surroundings. They screech at a jarring volume into their earbuds about how their day was so terrible and how so-and-so did this. It’s as if they’re violating your personal space in a public place.
Now think about someone else you may see on a street corner, speaking in quieter tones and with seemingly less rhythm. Is she wearing earbuds? No. Is she talking to me? No. Is she invading my space? No.
The first individual’s monologue feels trivial without an audience. However, the second individual’s street corner display is more confusing. We lack information about key factors of the exchange: speaking parties, topic of discussion, and tone of voice.
Our brains are captivated by others’ speech, especially when the speaker is alone. It frantically jumps about as it tries to attend to the nature of the words spoken. Our mind infers facts about the situation at hand, increasing our cognitive load and lessening the amount of attention left for other things (like the task at hand).
Studies have found that a one-sided conversation requires more attentional resources and thus is more distracting than a dialogue.
I consider myself to be a pretty quiet person. As my 2nd-grade Taekwondo teacher, Master Dong, used to tell his students, “Think before you act.” That has always stuck with me. Even today, I speak only when I feel my voice will contribute something positive to the conversation. More often than not, I revert to listening (and I am a great eavesdropper because of it).
In a last-ditch procrastination effort last Sunday morning, I perused the local Victoria’s Secret store at the mall closest to my parents’ house. I found myself wandering about, taking heed of this season’s apparent trends.
Five minutes in, I noticed myself heavily focusing on a distinct voice just one room over. I looked up from my fiddling of price tags to notice that the woman speaking was moving at a considerable pace around the area. She paced back and forth around the pocketed rooms of the store while fervently advising someone on how to handle a situation with a friend. She said things like “you can do it, you know the answer” which was then followed by a laugh.
The woman was in her early 50’s, white, and wearing clothing that suggested relative affluence. My eyes instinctively searched for earbuds or a clip-in Bluetooth piece, but there was neither. She was speaking alone.
The volume of her voice was inconsistent, ranging from a whisper to a shout.
Twenty minutes had gone by when I realized that I was combing through display underwear with zero attention paid to the fabrics whatsoever. This woman had captivated me. I longed to know her story. Is she at the mall alone? Does she have kids? I stayed close to her, ready to intervene in case she became more upset and needed someone to listen.
We exchanged a smile every time she took a new lap through my room, our subtle way of acknowledging the other’s presence. As I moved from one room to another, a mother and daughter at the cash register caught my eye. They were pointing and laughing at the woman, saying how she was “so drunk” and did not belong in the store with other people.
The woman was empty-handed and clearly not bothering anyone else. Rather, she was lost in the conversation that only she could hear.
Looking back, I wish I had said something to the mother and daughter. I wish that I hadn’t thought so much that I forgot to act. I wish that I stood up for the woman and explained to them that hearing voices is not a choice. It is not a sin. It is not a means of enjoying oneself. It does not make one more or less “worthy” of leaving the house and experiencing life.
In my psychology-major bubble, I like to think that the stigma surrounding mental health is eroding and that we’re moving towards a more empathetic future. That said, moments like those remind me that the stigma is not gone from our society. Those moments remind me that I have a long way to go towards eroding stigma in my own mind. Next time, I promised myself to actively engage with others’ lack of understanding rather than choose to ignore it. In ignoring it, I have perpetuated the very problem that my heart and mind so desperately seek to solve—the extension of empathy to others.