Bridging the generational divide: The psychology of distraction - feelya

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Dealing with generational division issues and its mental health implications
10 min read

These are strangely disparate times.  The way in which people handle information varies like generational soap.  This washes through our interchange, trust and understanding.

Information and its (mis)handling

To many of my own greying generation, data is a slippery bar of coal tar.  It does the job, but you know that, really, it is not to be trusted. It squids through your fingers, crashes onto your toe and turns any previously solid foothold into a skidpan.  Meanwhile twenty-somethings squirt careless information like shower gel, wash their way to an effortless result and look arrogantly fabulous across, seemingly, any medium.  Yet your attempts – ok, my attempts — smell like the old school janitor on kit day.

This lacuna in data assimilation is all society’s fault; as demonstrated by a simple experiment.  First, find a time machine – a second hand one is fine – and place inside a modern teenager.  Whizz, along with accompanying angst and exaggerations, back to 1972 and place onto a Chopper bicycle.  Give it a pair of Clackers.  Leave in situ

With the certainty of “Nobody understands me, I want a dog.”, you will incubate a fair facsimile of a Glam Rocker or maybe a Pan’s Person; imbued with a 1970’s fashion sense that draws heavily on fat felt pens, LSD and a blindfold.  For scientific symmetry, an adolescent in spinnaker flares, needs to travel in the opposite direction.  Fully immerse the incomer in a mix of electronic games, mobiles and the internet.  Then watch as within two months it – like its new peers – develops an aversion to exercise.  At the same time, a set of ultra-dextrous, self-governing thumbs, sprout like mushrooms in the absence of natural daylight.

Telling telly

There is no genetic difference at all between great-great-grandparents and subsequent generations. But social evolution changes with the rapidity of a hip chameleon sashaying across a disco light.  Patterns are formed in childhood.  We are all digital natives of one sort or another, but the salience and modernity of the technology varies.

Before the flares, Baby Boomers grew up with the delights of Andy Pandy.  Here is a five-minute episode you might enjoy:

In case you didn’t follow the link, here is a quick recap.  Andy takes tea with his friend Teddy and…well…that’s it; the entire episode. Boy, we really needed those songs to break the tension.  Baby Boomers imbibed this stuff; in many cases, with their mother’s milk.  They were coached then – and prefer now – to concentrate on a very few topics in a deep manner.

Look at a modern toddler’s favourite; Captain Jake and the Neverland Pirates:

There is more action in Jake’s credits than in the whole of Mr Pandy’s adventure.   Ten seconds whirling with a Neverland native would see Teddy tarantula’d by his strings.  Today’s digital natives – including those entering the workplace –accept and understand the plethoric buzz of data sources that can strike their seniors as malevolent wasps.  Meanwhile a parent’s preference for gently intense pottering holds — for Generation Z – all the appeal of colouring in the O’s in the Phone Book.  The potential for fractiousness and distraction is huge.


So, what about the outliers, those who will not conform?  There are Silver Surfers who expertly feed their personalized input into the one hour of video uploaded to YouTube every second.  There are assiduous nineteen-year-olds gluing together model stretches of iron-flat Northumberland, ready for the rasping, cherished wheels of a tiny Flying Scot.

And if you are not of the right generation — or mindset – to match your client, or your friend or colleague, how do you develop rapport?  If you are a person who enjoys life freshly poured from a fruit blender, how do you find common ground with somebody whose idea of a thrill is spotting country buses in a light drizzle?

Solving the riddle with trigonometry?

Well, you could do worse that trying Proxemics (and lighting grateful votives to Edward Hall). In 1963, Hall defined proxemics as the interrelated observations and theories of humans use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture.  In short, if you manipulate the space correctly you have half a chance of rubbing along with anybody.

Distance:          There are references at the end of this article, but here is a boiled synopsis.  Make sure that you sit (or stand) at the right distance from somebody.  About a metre should do it.  Any closer and you’re impinging; you are entering the intimate zone of physical contact or combat. So unless you plan to kiss or kick your interlocutor, reverse gear is recommended.

Anything beyond 1.4 metres is likely to set you adrift outside the personal space of dyadic interaction.  Here, conversation is likely to be remote, strained and erratic. Think of selling plump oysters to the Chiefs of a primitive tribe from darkest Surrey.  You could be at your cogent, persuasive best; but if you fail to engage your stand-offish audience members, they may be marginally aggrieved at the suggestion that they should pick up what looks like a badly chipped piece of flint and from it slurp down, the apparent and freshly expelled contents of a nose.

Sit  too far away and you strain a social bond.  Hover too close and you walk all over it.  This means your task is to move into the eighteen-inch Goldilocks zone between “Back off!” and “Ahoy there”.

Space:  Always adjust your angles.  Bull snorting arguments, larded with incandescence and outrage, are at their most effective when conducted head on.  Even a disembodied row will see you turn the phone away from your ear and towards your face, so you can better vent your anger and spittle over the squawking, inanimate, irritant.  If you want to amplify generational or attitudinal misunderstandings and prejudices, then eyeball-to-confrontational-eyeball is the way to go.

The corollary is that it is almost impossible to argue with somebody in a collaborative, shoulder-to-shoulder position.  Try it.  The next time a loved one bears down on you, riddling their niggles like hot coals, move to one side. Triangulate your body with theirs, set the angle between your two torsos at an agreeable 90 degrees or so.

They are likely, despite themselves, to begin to see your point.  Of course, the enormous downside to this is that you may see their point too.  There is significant risk that understanding, insight, even liking will break out.

And finally

Naturally, all this assumes that a therapist using proxemics simultaneously pays attention to what is said, shows respect and wears an expression that isn’t redolent of discoveries at the back of the salad drawer, regardless of provocation.  Using space well can help everybody to understand, to explain and to tolerate.

After all, distractions and frustrations are unnecessary. Despite appearances, we are all the same species.  We just need to find that out.

 Further reading

Hall, E.T. (1966). The hidden dimension. London: Anchor Books

Kelly, F.D. (1972).  Communicational significance of therapist proxemic cues.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 39, 345.

Shah, R (2011). Working with five generations in the workplace. Forbes.  Retrieved (21st March 2018) from

Sorokowska, A., Sorokowski, P., Hilpert, P. (2017). Preferred interpersonal distances: A global comparison. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 48, 235

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