Selective deafness

Whenever a radio or television announcer says we are about to hear an interview with Tony Blair, I turn off my ears. This may be an excessive response but many years ago our former prime minister lost my trust. For me, what was an exciting political prospect became a betrayal, and a warmongering one at that. He was, as it turns out, a serial trickster, so why should I bother to listen to him again?

But my selective deafness is not limited to such extremes, nor is it brought on solely by distrust. Another important cause for me is distraction. Something happens that diverts me away from listening. This has happened twice in the last few weeks and again has involved TV programmes; one the traditional New Year’s Day concert from Vienna, the other a discussion about over-suggestive (over–sexualising) advertising and its adverse effects on children. The music, played by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, was good enough (although rather duller than last year!), and the discussion, by the Chief Executive of the Mothers’ Union, was very reasonable. The problem was that both had serious flaws and the distraction these caused was such as to make concentrating on what was said/played essentially impossible

What diverted me was seeing gross gender injustice. In an orchestra of perhaps 100 musicians all but 2 were men, and it was man who was head of the Mothers’ Union and so spoke on behalf of women. To me, not only did the two scenarios beggar belief, they were also demeaning and offensive, and my mind concentrated on these issues rather than the sounds emitted.

I suspect that I ‘turn off’ a lot, although it occurs much less now than when I was younger. As a child, listening to my father when he was ‘helping’ me with my homework was almost impossible. I imagine he must have found me very testing – in his eyes I was a daydreamer and a stubborn one at that. In classes and later in lectures, I would stop listening when the information being offered was over-dense, over-complicated or beyond my comprehension. In these circumstances I just needed some respite. When the message was delivered in an aggressive or demanding way, hearing became difficult as I simply withdrew into my shell and found that words would be blanked out when my mind turned to reflecting on what had just been said.

I do not know how difficult others find listening but from my years as a doctor and a teacher (and occasionally as a parent), I suspect that ‘turning off’ is actually very common. I soon learned that however hard they tried, many patients and students miss important bits of what is said. Indeed, lapses are so standard that in any lecture or conversation I, and most of colleagues, would deliberately spend time repeating and/or reformulating information. Even with all this, I know that I often failed, though lapses are actually common to us all. So, often after a conference or some complicated negotiations, my colleagues and I would convene to pool what we had heard because we were well aware of the holes we had in our individual memories.

In most instances, not hearing is very wasteful, and certainly those who manage to take in all that is said are at a great advantage. However there are occasions when it can help. As a one-time critic of government, the pharmaceutical industry and the medical establishment, during my career I was occasionally confronted by questions that were laced with personal or barbed comments. Through selective deafness I could simply concentrate on the factual issues. An approach that was intellectually appropriate and also had the advantage of undermining their gibes.

Turning off in every-day conversation is less common for me nowadays, but it has resurfaced in the one area where I have returned to the classroom, and how I regret it. I am talking about learning French where, for me, the most difficult elements are not reading or writing, but understanding what is said. It is odd how one’s childhood comes back to haunt one!


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