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How to Be Respectful Audience Members
Peter Nilsson Contributing Writer
November 15, 2017

While watching a performance at a recent school meeting, I was distracted by people talking. At previous school meetings, I’ve been distracted by glowing screens. This happens during student readings of Deerfield stories, during music and dance performances, and while guest speakers are sharing their experiences.

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” wrote philosopher Simone Weil in a letter to a friend. Sharing our attention is at the heart of what it means to value face-to-face interactions and to value respect, honesty, and concern for others. In a community like ours, attention to our peers, to other community members, and to our guests is a basic expectation.

Credit: Hannah Kang

Still, we all live different lives, and sometimes we are preoccupied, or we are tired, or we simply aren’t interested in a presentation or performance. This is ok. In these moments, we should refrain from distracting others. Offer eye contact. Do our best. Refraining from whispering or messaging makes other people’s experiences better.

In fact, recent research suggests that multitasking, like checking your phone or talking with others, might not only hinder your own learning, but also the learning of people around you. There a science behind this that involves how the brain switches between tasks: breaking the attention of others disrupts working memory and inhibits the brain’s ability to construct new knowledge and memories. In short, being disruptive at meetings — by talking, looking at your phone, etc. — makes other people’s experiences worse.

We are lucky to meet regularly in a space as beautiful as our auditorium. Its beauty is not only visual, though. The acoustics are sensitive; the sight lines, diverse. As a result of this sound and shape, we hear each other and see each other more clearly than in other spaces. This is a gift to us all, but also sometimes a challenge.

Since most students reading this are caring audience members, to you I ask: please tell the people around you to be respectful, to not distract others by talking or looking at their phones during speeches or performances. And to those with your phones on your lap or who whisper to your neighbor: be generous. Give your attention to others, and especially to those who have the courage and generosity to stand before you and give their attention to you.