Watch and You Will Know

Evelyn Rodriguez is in very expansive mode over at Crossroads Dispatches, and recently wrote about her meeting with a marketing guy at, whose tagline is:

Ask, and people will guess at what they do. Watch them, and you’ll know.

And she quotes Gay Talese as saying that his interviews with people are initially quite meaningless, until he has observed them for awhile. So to some extent, he says, interviewing people who speak a different language is no harder than interviewing those who speak your own. Most of the meaning is picked up in the observation, and most of the journalist’s value is in reporting what was observed, not what was said.

This, of course, is Cultural Anthropology 101. From the point of view of a business, the key to disruptive innovation is social insight. The minute you discover something important about your customers that no one else has picked up on, and that perhaps the customers themselves have not articulated, your competitors should be very, very afraid.

I see this in my observations in nature as well. The squirrels learned how to defeat my baffles through one part trial-and-error, one part creative thinking, and one part observing, paying attention to every aspect of the challenge at hand. The ritual circular sniffing of dogs when they meet is merely an introduction to a profound process of mutually paying attention. I sometimes think our language is to some extent a distraction from paying attention, or even an excuse for not paying attention to people we are in the company of. Contrast that with the behaviours of new lovers, who are observing and paying attention to each other to an almost excruciating degree. They pick up, and even neutral observers nearby pick up, non-verbal signals and nuances of communication as subtle as the dilation of the pupils and the rhythm of breathing, the more complex rise and fall of voice and the non-verbal gurgles and trills between words — expressions rarely apparent in ‘normal’ human spoken conversation because there’s no point in them if no one is paying attention.

I believe instinctively that all animal communications are that rich and that subtle, because they are so much better at paying attention than we are. They must perceive us as unbelievably insensitive, almost unconscious by comparison. Yet we call them ‘dumb’ animals.

I recently wrote something that I think (immodestly) is quite profound in Jane Crow Journal where there was some light-hearted discussion of what women (and men) really want. I said:

I think what most of us want, male and female, human and other, is attention and appreciation. Everything else is derivative of those two things.

It’s really all about attention, and paying attention. The attention we pay to others, and that others pay to us, defines us, far more than our appearance or our name. And how can we appreciate what someone (a life partner, a business partner, a customer, an employee, a friend, a foe) is about and has to offer unless and until we pay attention to her, really listen and observe with (as much as is humanly possible) no judgement, no personal filters or frames impeding. And once weve paid enough attention that we really understand that person (or for that matter, that creature of any species), how can we not appreciate her?

That’s the simplest explanation I can provide for how we have lost touch with nature, and why we see the environment as ‘other’ and fail to appreciate its immense importance. We have lost the ability to pay attention to it, as language and other blunter tools of learning and appreciation have replaced observation and paying attention in human behaviour. And when we no longer appreciate it, we are content to allow it to be destroyed, until one day we can’t observe and appreciate it anymore. “Oh it always seems to be, we don’t what we’ve got ’til its gone”, as Joni Mitchell put it.

Things are the way they are for a reason. Watch, listen, observe, pay attention, and you will know that reason. Most genius, most innovation, most emotion, I am convinced, stems from this ‘first-hand’ knowledge.

This is the skill, more than any other, that I need to learn.

Photo from the Ontario SPCA.

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4 Responses to Watch and You Will Know

  1. Mariella says:

    Quoting you”Things are the way they are for a reason. Watch, listen, observe, pay attention, and you will know that reason. Most genius, most innovation, most emotion, I am convinced, stems from this ‘first-hand’ knowledge.This is the skill, more than any other, that I need to learn”.Sometimes it happens to me that observing,- mostly when i´m in the community where i work – i can see and feel i am facing “A reason for things to be the way they are…” but i lack the tools to traduce or transform that information into a language i can process.. I am missing something…There is a book called the Janajpacha that collects tails froms the rainforrests.” A little boy comes back home running from school and tells his mother : the teacher taught me today that we have 5 senses….. the mother says : don´t beleive him, they say that to confuse us, if it was so… how could we possibly live? ” Mariella

  2. Paul Hunt says:

    I always taught my kids (and anyone else who I could corner) that “Attention is the currency of life”. Financial currencies are merely substitutes for the real thing.

  3. Pearl says:

    It will be a great day when we can remotely communicate taking in at least the body language, zooming in and out with the astuteness of eyes and ears. The smell factor will still be lacking but perhaps…eventually.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Mariella: What a wonderful story about synaesthesia! Having that would certainly make it easier to ‘see’!Paul: Amen. The challenge is in not falling prey to the tendency to join the hucksters by trying to get that attention inauthentically.Pearl: Yes. I think we have that ability now. We have just forgotten how to use it.

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