Are you listening?

Your phone is flashing posts and tweets, background noise is competing with your speaker’s conversation thread and you are distracted by the argument you had recently with a friend. Researchers have referred to the state of your brain at that point as cognitive overload, cognitive busyness or more recently as inability to be mindful.

It makes perfect sense that if your brain is overloaded with stimuli; you aren’t able to concentrate to take in new information. It also makes sense that in a constant state of overload, one would expect to only absorb superficial information and may be prone to greater and more frequent mistakes.

According to intercultural researchers Thomas and Inkson (2004) this is particularly problematic in intercultural situations where the listener automatically defaults to his or her own cultural assumptions instead of paying attention to the cultural clues that might lead to deeper understanding.

Two Systems of Thought

Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow explains that two systems of thinking are consistently found in human behaviour. The first is: fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, and subconscious whereas the second is slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, and conscious.

In a world where time is of the essence and deadlines are always imminent, fast thinking is what we have become accustomed to value. To counterbalance this trend, more and more business advice columns and blog posts are reminding us to slow down, reflect and make more informed decisions to have clearer thought, and to avoid costly and dangerous mistakes. The exponentially increasing number of yoga studios springing up on every street corner next to the convenience stores attests to our hunger for slowing down, taking in and learning to appreciate things, events, and people.

This is also what I have been advocating until I stumbled upon some very interesting research about perceptions and brain overload. Fragale and Grant (2010) and Lalwani (2009) discovered that there were status perception patterns characterizing listeners who were not really listening. The first is that the listener (who was only “half” listening) perceived the speaker to have higher status. The second was that the non-listening listener was more likely to buy. Conversely, as soon as the listener became more mindful and began to listen intently, two things happened: the listener’s perception of the speaker’s status went down and the listener’s objections to buying a product went up.

In the intercultural context, researchers discovered that the more culturally distinct the listener and the speaker were from each other, the more likely the speaker was to engage in self-promoting speech and behaviours. If the listener was actually listening, then their status perception of the culturally different speaker went down. However if the listener was cognitively busy, their status perception of the culturally different speaker went up.

In brief, the findings showed that when people want to make an impression on others or if they want to make a quick sale, they are more successful if the listener is cognitively busy.

The caveat, however, is that this research was conducted using a majority of white, North American, English speaking male participants. Men tend to perceive women’s self-promotion more negatively than men’s self promotion and insufficient studies have been conducted on cultural preferences, cultural speech patterns and cognitive busyness. Surely the effects of slow thinking characterized by mindful and deep listening have some connection to longer-term relationship building, if on the basis of attracting a mate alone. And with regard to purchasing behaviour, it seems to me that a distracted listener is more likely to buy a package of gum at the checkout counter than a car or a three-year service contract, so the decision to purchase cannot be mitigated by fast thinking alone.

Caveats and contextual questions aside, the surprising part about these studies is that the more distracted the listener, the more likely he will be to think well of you and/or to buy your product (assuming the price is not an issue).  And, the bigger the cultural difference between speakers and listeners, the more likely the speaker will be to try to “look good” to the listener. Who knew?