Engaged, Not Engaged?

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College Fair

The other evening, my wife and I accompanied our daughter to a college fair. She’s a junior, and this is an important part of the college selection process. Over one hundred colleges all came to display their wares, with many hundreds of high school students on hand to try to make their connections and winnow down their choice (or make themselves stand out in the minds of the admissions officers of their chosen schools).

It was a packed affair. My wife and I decided that our best course would be to let our daughter use the time on her own, and not try to guide, prod, or speak for her in any way. So, we each cruised the event on our own, developed our own impressions, and then the two of us reconnoitered in the bleachers to wait while our daughter finished her work. Her part took longer, because she had to interact with a number of people. We told her to take her time. We were fine.

And, in fact, we were. Many parents were sitting around us, occupied with their own activities. As were we. Both of us found the even fascinating in its own way. My wife, Andrea Jarrell, is a consultant to colleges and universities, and found it interesting to see how her work (viewbooks and branding for places such as Lafayette University, Swarthmore, and Columbia) was used and to be on the “consumer” side of the desk. As for me, I am fascinated by crowds and like to people watch, discerning patterns in their behavior.

Naturally interested in sharing our experiences, we each pulled out our smartphones and went to Facebook. Andrea had posted a photo along with a comment about how interesting she found the experience. I weighed in. Other mutual friends were commenting, and we were each enjoying refreshing our screens, updating our statuses, joking with one another, and sharing our observations.

It was an interesting feeling of being at the same time engaged with an event in real life, and sharing it on social media . . . all at the same time that we were sharing the experience of being there together. We were engrossed, living in three or four worlds simultaneously.

Then, our reveries and interactions were interrupted. The admissions officer from a school whose table happened to be right near us had been watching our behavior, and he’d sauntered over. “I have never seen a couple more . . . ”

. . . As he began his sentence, I filled in the blank for him mentally. “Engaged.” “Proud.” “Interested.” What was he about to say?

“. . . disinterested than you two,” he finished.

I was taken aback. We were, in fact, the opposite of that. If you could be “in flow” sitting on the bleachers at a college fair, we were there. Yet, I could see how it might appear that we were bored out of our skulls. I thought of it from his perspective. There we were, sitting together, staring into our phones, tapping away. We would look around blankly for a while, then back into our phones and tap away. Once in a while we might say something to one another, but we did this sporadically and briefly. Mostly, from his perspective, we were just sitting there.

We disabused our new friend of his misperception, and explained how interested we, in fact, were. We spoke for a while. Turns out the admissions officer has two children, one a senior in high school, and he has been interested in his own experience of the admissions process from the other side of the desk. We shared about this for a while, and then he went back to work.

As he walked away, I thought about our exchange, and how appearances can be quite deceiving, especially when you mix them with stereotypes. Because we looked like the prototypical bored and disinterested  parents, our new friend assumed that was what we were.

I’ll have to remember that, next time I assume someone is not paying attention because they are staring into their smartphone. Maybe, in fact, they are more engaged than ever.

 

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