“Are you listening to me?” said Mrs PM the other day.
Although I was listening a little, she did not have my undivided attention. I was watching football on the TV and she was prompted to ask because I made a minor faux pas; I nodded in agreement when she was expecting the answer “No!”
I mastered the art of switching off during a conversation when I was a child. I come from a family containing three extremely talkative women. My mother has the ability to, as the saying goes, talk the hind legs off a donkey and my two sisters are similar.
When I was a kid, trying to concentrate on the TV, homework, a book or anything else, my mother had moments when she was oblivious to the fact that I didn’t want to talk or be interrupted. I was a polite child and didn’t want to incur her wrath by telling her to shut up. I managed to train myself to enter the zone, a haven from outside influence where I can concentrate at the exclusion of any external stimulus I choose to ignore.
My mum’s voice was such a stimulus and, believe me, that took a lot of doing over the years. A lot of the time she would talk about everyday nonsense, banal chatter about friends that did not interest me sufficiently to engage in conversation. I mastered the art of occasionally feigning interest by punctuating her one way chatter with the odd “Really?”, “I didn’t know that!” and “Oh yes.”.
I knew my mum well enough to know that most of the time it would work – and it did. When she wanted to tell me something worthwhile I would of course give her my undivided attention.
It’s the same with my sisters – though in their case I would tell them “I’m too busy – tell me later.”
Unfortunately, Mrs PM knows how to catch me out. She knows me too well and peppering a conversation with “Really?”, “I didn’t know that!” and “Oh yes!” just does not work.
So during a World Cup football match, Mrs PM was telling me about her friend’s woes when I said the words “Oh yes!”.
“Did you hear what I said?” she said.
“Oh yes,” I said again, having no clue what she had said, too intent on seeing a goal attempt by Brazil against Mexico.
She punched me on the arm and said “Are you listening to me?”.
Now she had my attention.
“Of course I am,” I said looking into her eyes.
“What did I just say, then?” she asked, her face starting to show a mixture of annoyance and impatience.
“What did I just say, then?” I quipped with a smile. That was a mistake.
“I meant before that,” she snarled.
“When?” I said.
“What did I say about Susan?” she asked again.
“Erm!” I said pathetically.
I had no idea.
I was caught out because my ability to switch off from the conversation had let me down.
What I should have done was asked her to talk to me at the half time interval rather than during the game. That too might have caused an issue but at least it would have been better than being caught in the zone.
The zone is a place that I retreat to on a fairly regular basis. It is a place where I can disable external interfaces and concentrate on whatever I need to. An example of being in the zone is when I go for a solo walk at lunchtime.
I leave work with my headphones in place so that I can walk the streets for half an hour with a soundtrack of my favourite songs, switching off from work related nightmares, contemplate life and the universe, or simply drift off into a voyage around my own imagination.
On one such occasion I was marching down the street when a friend of Mrs PM spotted me from a distance. She didn’t know where I worked so was unsure whether it was me or not – until I walked right past her on the other side of the road.
I was in the zone and simply did not see her. She called out to me but my music prevented me from hearing her.
I saw her a few days later and she mentioned this; I was surprised and slightly ashamed. I was very apologetic.
Friends of mine, male friends that is, do make the same mistake. One of my work colleagues had a similar experience but his other half caught him out in a much better way.
He was watching TV and his missus, standing in the doorway, said:
“What do you think of this dress? Should I wear it?”
“Yes,” he replied, still watching the TV.
“What colour is it?” she said.
“Erm – Erm,” he replied sheepishly.
He was so deep into the zone that he didn’t even realise that she had left the room and had not paid any attention whatsoever to the dress that she had showed him when she was in the room.
One thing does puzzle me. I wonder whether the ability to switch off and enter the zone is purely a male ability or whether women do the same.
If Mrs PM is not interested in what I am saying, she is forthright enough to tell me. She does not need to enter the zone.
Perhaps my problem is that I didn’t really want to upset my mum by telling her that I would rather watch television than listen to her talking about her friends.
Perhaps I should tell Mrs PM that I don’t want to know about Susan’s current problems because Belgium are playing Russia in the World Cup.
I’ll let you know in a future post whether I am successful or not – and I will also include a photo of my black eye if it all goes horribly wrong.
Let me know, if you are a female reader, whether you enter the zone and switch off; I am genuinely interested.
And I won’t say “Really?” – honestly.