Comments and Listening: How to Show You’re Not Paying Attention

A person yelling into a tin can with a string attachedDo you ever find yourself reading through the comments on a YouTube video or blog post? Sometimes I feel like every other comment should start with, “I didn’t actually watch your video, but…” because so many commenters (even excluding those that are clearly spam) don’t seem to have been looking at the same content I just watched. Why are we so bad at paying attention?

One answer, which happens to be a trusty scapegoat, is to blame the Internet. At its core, the Internet is about the creation and dissemination of information. The democratization of opinion has many positive qualities. I’m able to write this blog, for example, and I can expect that at least a handful of people will find and read it. And if this isn’t your jam, there are millions of other places to connect with people. Some of the best news stories are possible today because of our ability to almost instantly produce and share content.

Along with this, however, has come a new urgency to be involved in the conversation, to have our voices heard. We feel that our voice needs to be heard regardless of the platform or topic. For the most part, that impulse is helpful or at least benign. Comments can encourage or provide feedback. They can offer perspective or nuance. But often, they feel more like something else. I saw a post recently that lampooned the reviews for online recipes. (I’m pretty sure it was this one from The Toast, so I’m quoting from it.) The post is meant to be humorous, but it certainly hits home on many of these.

I didn’t have any eggs, so I replaced them with a banana-chia-flaxseed pulse. It turned out terrible; this recipe is terrible.

I love this recipe! I added garlic powder, Italian seasoning, a few flakes of nutritional yeast, half a bottle of kombucha, za’atar, dried onion, and biscuit mix to mine. Great idea!

a warning that if you cook this at 275°F for three hours instead of at 400°F for twenty-five minutes its completely ruined. do you have any suggestions?

We so often feel compelled to relay our own story even when it isn’t actually appropriate. Maybe we are trying to be helpful, and maybe comments like these are beneficial on occasion. Mostly, they are self-serving, however. They are there to make us feel smart or to show everyone else that we are. They don’t serve the original content or its audience.

Ultimately, this is a manifestation of an old problem. We are not good listeners. In conversation, we tend to pay more attention to formulating our response than we do to what other people are saying. We enter a discussion we preconceived ideas and we leave in the same state because we were not open.

I do this often with content I read or watch. I have an opinion about the source, or a previous experience with the show, and I let that color my reception. This is not a good strategy for letting a movie or book have an impact on you. It can also lead to other people not enjoying the experience of sharing said movie with you. They can feel your judgments and opinions even when you keep them to yourself (just ask Melanie, who doesn’t really like me to watch “her shows” with her).

Of course, the answer is not to disengage, to provide no feedback or encouragement when the opportunity is there. Instead, I try to think about what value I am bringing, whether as a reader, a viewer, or a listener. That small consideration might help you add something to the conversation instead of diverting it or shutting it down. At least, I feel like that would be a good approach even if I’m not always successful at it.

What’s the best useless comment you’ve seen recently?


  1. Dathan says

    I didn’t actually read your post, but [tangentially related observation about a small piece of text taken completely out of context and blown out of proportion], so [ad hominem attack] and [speculation about your mother] you [expletive deleted].

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