“My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind – without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos.”
— William James, 1890
This notion, from one of the world’s first psychology textbooks, returned to me recently:
- Last week, I visited a Botanical Garden in Maine with my cousin, a bird-watcher. I walked by lavender, day lilies, and begonias while he, at my side, walked by a peewee, two gold finches and a woodpecker.
- This winter, I sat in a crowded, noisy, colorful airport café in SE Asia with my husband. At the same moment, we noticed [different] things that didn’t seem to belong – for me, it was a Muzak recording of a 1970s Simon and Garfunkel tune and, for my husband, an American military plane that had just landed way across the airport.
Our experience is what we agree to attend to. Only those items which we selectively notice shape our minds. We all have a lifetime of agreeing to attend to some items and not others – I love this idea of volition in the shaping of our minds.* We’re all the richer for it. May it ever be thus. (Although, see the sidebar for some fun examples of how limiting selective attention can be.)
But what happens when these differences in attention lead to fiercely-held differences in attitude, behavior and belief? The question for interculturalists who work in this space is, “What shapes what we agree to notice?” “How malleable are these influences once we have reached adulthood?” “Can adults learn to notice new things in the service of intercultural understanding?”
That is, can a person raised to believe fiercely in equality learn to notice (and respect) the signals of social power and status necessary to living in a more hierarchical culture?
Or, what happens when a person who’s been taught to ‘say what you mean and mean what you say’ encounters a person who’s been taught that ‘he who knows does not speak; he who speaks does not know?’ Can the former learn to interpret the latter’s silence as something other than ignorance, passivity or timidity? Can the latter learn to interpret the former’s verbal directness as something other than rudeness and arrogance?
The short answer, in each case, of course, is ‘yes.’ But it helps to start with a healthy respect for the enormity, depth, and steely strength of the convictions we have, based on our own experience. The first step in intercultural understanding is to take in William James’ words – My experience is what I agree to attend to, and if you have attended to different things, which you surely have, your reality – and your mind and values and choices – will be different. Learning to selectively notice your world will help me understand it.
PS. Actually, for you students of William James, I should note that he probably would be surprised – and maybe object to – my application of his idea to cultural training. He also said, ‘…we never make an effort to attend to an object except for the sake of some remote interest which the effort will serve.’ Well, times change… I say the interest of cultural understanding is not remote.