When I was a kid, there was one sentence that always made me cringe. It made pain and nausea stab my stomach and my throat ache and my eyes burn. Eight words. An imperative.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
When they weren’t so angry with me for looking away, they would explain: I couldn’t pay attention if I wasn’t looking at them, they thought. I was ignoring them when I looked away, they said.
Feeling ignored makes anyone angry. That I understood.
But looking at them wasn’t enough. If I dragged my eyes away from the knots of the wood-laminate floor or from the pattern of the decades-old wallpaper and looked at their feet or their hands or their mouth, a second imperative would lash out:
“Look me in the eye!”
Looking them in the eye, I was told, was how I showed I was paying attention.
I told them, “I can’t hear you when I look at your eyes.”
They called me a liar. Ridiculous. Everyone can pay attention while making eye contact. I could, too. It was on me to show sincere attention to what others were saying, even if “showing” the attention meant that I couldn’t actually pay attention. And then I got into trouble for not paying attention anyway, when I couldn’t parrot what they said perfectly.
When I said I couldn’t look and pay attention at the same time, they brushed me off.
Over time, I learned cheats. Stand a little further away, and looking at someone’s mouth or nose looks like you’re looking at their eyes. If that’s not possible, look right between their eyebrows. Riskier, because if I falter at all, I lock eyes and then can’t pay attention. But if the person will yell if I’m caught, I can’t pay attention anyway, so walk that tightrope.
I learned that facing the person with my body means that I can get away with looking away a little more. I learned that nodding slightly is an acceptable way to fidget. I learned that I can wring my hands while someone’s talking to me, but only if they’re an adult who’s lecturing angrily about something. I learned that crossing my arms is dangerous, but so is flapping, swaying or shifting from foot to foot.
I learned that if the adult is yelling, under no circumstances should I cover my ears, even if their voice makes my eardrums feel like bursting (something I’ve experienced several times, so I have experience for this comparison, and yes, I do mean that comparison literally. Yelling hurts). I learned that cringing and crying makes more yelling. I learned that backing away to lessen the assault on my ears also gets more yelling. I learned that no adult will notice if I pinch my hand or drive my thumbnail into my index finger (the sides of both of which are now covered in thick calluses from decades of sensory self-regulation) or bite my cheek to relieve the pain as they yelled, but that pulling my hair or hitting myself will get noticed and will get still more yelling.
Most of all, I learned that most people care less about whether or not you’re actually listening and more about whether or not you put on an acceptable performance of listening.