My mother called to tell me that the sitting judge in an on-going local rape case involving minor children under the age of ten had said that the accused should suffer the maximum penalty under the law, without allowances for anything that might lessen the sentence for what he did. Mind you, the trial isn’t over yet.
The judge didn’t say that, I told her, and, in fact, couldn’t have said that because that would result in a mistrial and they’d have to start all over again. It’s a violation of judicial ethics for the judge to comment on an on-going case in any fashion whatsoever.
She kept insisting, telling me where to find the article in the newspaper.
It was not an article, after all, but a letter to the editor written by a resident in Medina. In referencing the case, he mentioned the judge, who had made no comment whatsoever. It was the Medina resident, in his letter to the editor, who had made the comments that my mother attributed to the judge hearing the case. And citizens have the right to voice their opinions – but judges do not.
The problem here is that my mother didn’t read the letter carefully, so she misunderstood the message being conveyed, or in this case, attributed that message to the wrong person. A mistake that could render the trial null and void if the Judge had said it, but it would not come back to haunt the Medina man who was only exercising his right to free speech.
This lack of attention to detail, to hear the words being said – all of them, is a growing problem these days. My mother is somewhat of an exception as she’s always been this way, partly due to poor hearing, but also due to thinking about what she wants to say next instead of listening to what’s being said in the particular moment. More and more people, including many of my former students, don’t take the time to read or listen with keen attention. They skim text, reading only the beginning, picking up maybe a few sentences in the middle, and re-focusing a bit at the very end, just enough to get the gist, and do the same in the verbal sphere. They try to skate through with a cursory effort to negotiate minimal participation on the fringe of a discussion or to write a paper using 750 words that contribute nothing of value to the larger conversation.
People don’t seem to give their full attention to anything or anyone these days, leading to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. We’re texting, typing on the computer, and reading only the briefest of texts, tweets, and emails, the latter of which, I’m told, are passé already. We are constantly multi-tasking – and everybody’s doing it. The current climate we must negotiate, and not very effectively, is that of the short attention span.
Do we have that much to do every minute of the day that we are forced to multi-task in an effort to keep up?
When we don’t get it, we fail to ask for clarification. And why would we if we think we already know what’s going on?
When you tell your reader/listener that they’ve misunderstood what you said/meant/wrote, their first reaction often amounts to not believing you. It’s your mistake, not theirs. Sometimes they realize they’ve been inattentive but are ashamed to admit it because, well, how would that make them look? Like they didn’t care enough about what you said to give it the attention it was due.
Words make a difference, even just one of them.
If you choose your words carefully and that listener/reader zips right through carelessly, missing some important points and filling in the blanks his/herself, the resultant meaning doesn’t accurately reflect author intent. It’s no wonder so many people have to say I told you that already, and you’re, like, Really? I don’t remember you telling me that.
When I called my mother back to clarify her misreading of the text, she said she’d already talked to my sister who said I was right. Mom had misread it. Then she laughed at herself because she makes lots of these kinds of mistakes – we’ve become inured to it after all these years. Well, somewhat, sometimes. And she told Carol I would be calling her back to set her straight, and since that is what I was doing now, Mom thought that was pretty funny.
At least her error won’t be getting her in hot water with anyone in the legal profession. It won’t result in a criminal going free. It won’t land her in jail. And while mistakes of this nature can cause big problems within families, too, there was no harm done here. Not this time.
Just try to be mindful in dealing with others verbally or in writing, carefully monitoring your attention and interest. Be fully present in that moment, so you don’t end up friendless. And you sure don’t want your photo winding up on the front page of your local newspaper – at least not for the wrong reason.