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October 7, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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Interactions, Inter Alia

A few months ago, I drunkenly berated someone that “comic use of the word ‘interaction’ was my thing”. They didn’t get it.

Genuine interaction is where it’s at. I want to explain why some of your highest priorities ought to be enhancing your abilities to intuit people’s moods, let them know that you are properly listening, and actually be properly listening. If you want credentials for this armchair life coaching, I am certifiably 70-per-cent recovered from my days as a capitalist, Freudian-nightmare four-year-old whose life goals were recorded by a kindergarten teacher as being: “I want to work in the tall building with my Dad and marry my Dad.”

So many of our interactions are shallow. So much time is spent in close proximity to others, less than engaged: simultaneously chatting to people idly on the internet, or making separate plans, or thinking about something else. This isn’t about smartphones, although yes, I saw that Louis C.K. video, and yes, it was bang on. Just as he thinks we need to let ourselves be alone and stop constantly trying to eschew any and all sadness, I reckon we need to be reminded of the power of person-to-person communication. These are not mutually exclusive ideas. The common aim is to not take the easy way out. When you’re with people, give them your full attention. Be available to them.

I’m not saying that all of your interactions need to be productive—Iast weekend, I went to a party and spent a solid hour standing in a circle turning movie names pornographic.* By all means, grant yourself a reprieve where you’re spending time with more than one or two other people: group dynamics are a whole other kettle of sexually political fish. The point remains that, when you set time aside to spend with someone, even at short notice or for a short time, you owe it to them to really be present.

I don’t know why people are so reluctant to engage with other people. Certainly, it’s very easy to get distracted by a passerby’s nice forearms or a lit-up cellphone (or two things that typically distract you). I think it’s that opening yourself to feeling when you’re just trying to be functional is difficult. Your brain’s scattered all over your life, and if you engage with this other person’s worries and doubts and fears, it’s just going to slow you down and stress you out.

Eye contact is half the struggle. It’s not unstressful.** I get particularly anxious talking to someone whose eyes are flickering around me, and who keeps looking over my shoulder. I think, why won’t you look me in the eyes? Stop it. Look me in the eyes. What’s more interesting over my shoulder? Hold my gaze. Trust me to listen—you will get to leave earlier. I know that it’s easier to stare at the table. I know that if we’re talking about something sensitive and we look at each other’s eyes, how you’re really feeling will be more apparent to me. I am making a real effort to engage with you, because I want to know about you.*** If I didn’t want to do that, I would not have made plans to hang out with you. You have worth and are an enjoyable person, but that’s for another column.

Being able to fully engage with what someone is saying (or something they’re expressing non-verbally) is similar, I think, to the ability to pull your brain in and out of ‘deep thinking’ so that you can use an hour between classes productively. It’s similar again to the ability to avoid thinking about work/school when you’re at school/work. I struggle with all three of these; just like semicolons, they’re difficult. Focus is difficult.

Sometimes, I feel so sad that I stop being able to feel anything for a while. When this fog dissipates, I get a flood of something best—but still badly—described as ‘feeling': other people’s problems, heartbreaks, obstacles, insecurities, motivations, deterrents and fears are all starkly and harshly apparent. It doesn’t sound that way, but this is far better than the alternative. I recently remembered how powerful it is to engage with and properly feel for other people. I wanted to tell you about it, to make sure you’re still being human in the company of other humans. You need other humans. They’re like you.

I have the distinct feeling, as ever, that I’ve overshared. There is a caveat to all of this. Don’t take advantage of people’s attention to embarrass them by oversharing. Even if you think being a more sarky and deadpan Zooey Deschanel is part of your personal brand, oversharing just turns into a competition. Applicators are just more waste for the environment, you know?

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Hilary Beattie is a fourth-year Law and Commerce student who sometimes watches the fish-tank scene in Romeo + Juliet over and over again. She would like to use this blurb to apologise to a friend for making a David Foster Wallace gag in a column earlier this year. Follow her @hilaritybeattie.

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* Inevitable ‘Shaving Ryan’s Privates’ gag—like you could have resisted.

** My favourite language technique is called litotes, and involves the use of understatement for rhetorical effect. It’s, li’, totes accessible to the common reader.

*** Unless we’re at a party and a guy behind me is hitting on a girl by talking about his passion for feminism, in which case I’ll be listening to that. But I’ll subtly alert you to the comedy value, so we’ll both have a good time.

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