Didja ever notice...
December 1, 2011 10:40 AM   Subscribe

You have very poor observational skills. You're bad at noticing things. What strategies have you used to compensate for this? How has your spouse helped you in this?

I'm asking because my wife has this problem, and whenever it comes up, she gets defensive and, I think, feel s dumb. She's not dumb, she's very smart, but for whatever reason she doesn't notice stuff. It manifests itself in lots of ways:

- giving directions: I can't use landmarks because odds are pretty good she's never noticed the "shell station on the corner."
- finding stuff: I try to be very specific about where something can be found ("in a blue and white bag about a foot and a half long on the floor of closet X") and many times she won't be able to find it.
- using computers. I'll let you imagine how frustrating it is for her to use the typical interface. Forget about a cluttered interface. I'll sit there and say, look for the submit button...somewhere near the bottom...it has to be pulsing and dancing for her to notice it.
- Tidying up: early in our relationship this frustrated me more because I felt she was just willfully sloppy (clothes on the floor, shoes in the middle of the LR) but I've come to understand that she probably is not noticing these things so I just put her stuff away for her.

Interestingly, she seems pretty observant in certain contexts: playing a boardgame, she'll steal your leg. She's well-regarded in her office. She's a crafty person and she enjoys creating mosaics and similar arty type projects. Not sure that last one requires a ton of acuity because I'm not that way, but throwing it out there. She's a decent proofreader.

I'm not looking to change her. But I would like to hear from others who either are or who live with poor noticers, in hopes of making it less frustrating for both of us.

(I know I could ask her this question myself, but as I noted, she's pretty defensive about it and would be offended at the "accusation". But ideas on getting to this conversation would also be welcome.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (34 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Is your wife really busy? Sometimes, it's just that there's too much damn stuff rolling around in my head, and certain things just aren't...high priority, you know?

However, here's some suggestions:
1) Not everyone uses the landmark method of navigating. When I give directions, I give both a visual landmark, and a compass direction. E.g.: "Turn right at the Mac's Milk and proceed south down X street."

2) Does everything have it's assigned place in your home, or do things kind of move around? If something is always in the same place, it makes it easier to find, rather than trying to read the mind of whomever put it there however long ago.

3) I agree, some interfaces for websites suck eggs. I don't know that I have much to suggest there.

4) Here, she needs to agree with you that everything in its place makes #2 easier for everyone, and agree to at least corral the mess to a particular location. Papers in the office, shoes at the front door, keys on the table in the hall, etc.
posted by LN at 10:50 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hm. I'm this way too, except I'm not defensive about it, I'm more apologetic and well-at-least-I'm-cute? about it (I mean, I get defensive sometimes, but it's pretty rare). From my perspective, I would want to know from my partner about specific things that were bothering him, because I am capable of making a conscious effort to be neater, or whatever, though I'll probably never be anal about it. In general, I don't know if there's anything you can do to help-- if she doesn't have ADHD or anything, she's probably just a little scatterbrained in certain contexts.

I think adjusting to her needs when you give directions or help her find stuff is the only thing you can do. I do it all the time when I'm talking to different kinds of people. (It used to frustrate my father and my boyfriend to no end that I couldn't give directions like a sane person, but I've practiced at it a bit, or I do research first so I can give more useful information. I think all you can really do is be straightforward with her about your needs so you can both adjust, rather than thinking of yourself as normal and her as fixable.)
posted by stoneandstar at 10:52 AM on December 1, 2011

In other words, because she's doing excellently everywhere outside your relationship, this is more a communication error between you two than a cognitive error on her part.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:53 AM on December 1, 2011 [9 favorites]

One of the things you don't know if you have poor observational skills is that you have poor observational skills, usually. It's like those people who can see an extra color. Most people have no idea there's an extra color to be seen, and it's hard to describe what it looks like. My partner is also quite smart, but not the world's best observer. We differentiate what's actually something he needs to learn to notice [i.e. stove is on, trash stinks, gas tank is empty] and what's stuff that I need to chill about [my favorite sweater, new earrings, the zillion tabs he has open on Firefox that randomly play music]. We do not, however, live together.

When we've talked about this, he explains that he remembers stuff usually as general concepts and not as specific concrete things. So I'll say "put this on the lower righthand shelf of the refrigerator next to the bread" and he'll sort of see a fridge and a shelf and an arrow pointing one to the other in his mind. So I take an extra step and either really spell it out if it's important, or manage my own fussiness about order/disorder.

It sounds like you think she's maybe not trying hard enough or that you think this is something she will learn. She probably won't change a lot. That said, the deal we have in our relationship is that we meet in the middle on most things, which involves me backing waaaaayyy off on the way I want everything ordered and understood and specified and him being willing to write something down and read it to himself to make sure something that is mission critical [get to the airport on time] takes place. So in your examples: don't tell her to look for the button and then secretly glare at her as she slowly does it, point it out to her and give her some "you can tell this in the future because..." information. Don't pick up after her, just agree on some level of tidiness that you can both meet and/or do some clean-up time together. My SO never gets around to folding the laundry, doesn't bother him, no big deal. However, when I'd come to visit I'd see the piles of clean laundry as some huge TO DO list and couldn't relax until it was dealt with. So our deal now is that if it's not done when I come over, he does it when I get there and we'll hang out together while he does it, btu I won't do it for him.

For your part, you need to either learn to describe in ways she understands or find another way to get information across. My dad would always do the "it's in a blue bag in the lower right corner of the closet" thing and then sit there and sort of fume as we'd fumble around looking for it, silently thinking we were a little stupid. No one likes that. I've now become someone who tries very very hard to not be that person, because it's a toxic way to be and it's not accepting of different cognitive processing styles with people. So, just like stoneandstar says, this is mostly communication, not her being worse at something than you [though I know how it looks that way to you, but you sort of need to move beyond that because it's not helping]. Figure out what you need from this where the answer isn't "she starts to think differently" and talk to her about how you guys are stuck in bad patterns that you'd like to start breaking out of. It can be tough because you both need to trust the other to not be frustrated/dickish/etc, but if you approach it as a couple-problem and not as a "my wife is like THIS" problem, it will likely get addressed with more lasting results.
posted by jessamyn at 10:57 AM on December 1, 2011 [20 favorites]

Lots of people, myself included, are bad with directions. Are things in your house always in the same place and never move? Many, many people are bad with computers. There's not much help in that department, and fwiw, a good portion of websites are poorly designed.

My husband gets this way with me when I don't "notice" things. I assure you she's not doing it on purpose. When this happens to me in my relationship, I do feel stupid because what I didn't catch was pointed out to me when it wasn't vitally important. Do you fight about things like directions and how to navigate the internet constantly?

Simply put, you do things differently. When my husband gives me directions, he know that he has to tell me repeatedly and well within the approach of the next step in the directions. There's nothing to be mad about; he just knows what to communicate with me now. I don't know why I can't keep the directions in my head. I think your wife doesn't either. Work with her and you'll both be less frustrated.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 11:02 AM on December 1, 2011

Hi, I could be your wife. I was going to talk about how my husband and I have these exact same frustrating conversations about driving and where/how to find things and that I don't see the one link he's talking about on the one website and he sends me those "you'll crap your pants once you see it" meme images and I never see it and I'm sick of him sending them to me because it feels like he just wants to gloat about how I never see them and so I no longer even try.

But instead I will just ditto stoneandstar and jessamyn in that this is 100% a communication issue. I do not know which Shell Station you're talking about where I need to turn, I don't see That Sign Over There because there are 400 signs in that general direction. I need different kinds of directions because when I drive I see the city just like Google Maps, so tell me the name of the street and how many blocks away it is.

This doesn't make me stupid, or unobservant, but I process information in a manner different than how he processes information. And we are both learning how to present information to help the other understand, but it's an ongoing process.
posted by rhapsodie at 11:09 AM on December 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

LN wrote, "Does everything have it's assigned place in your home, or do things kind of move around? If something is always in the same place, it makes it easier to find, rather than trying to read the mind of whomever put it there however long ago."

I know someone who is a bit like the original poster's wife and this person is the reason there's no assigned place for things in their home/office. That is, they increase their own inability to not notice where something is, whether something needs doing, etc. They don't know to put things back where they found them. It's like they missed that part of childhood, preschool or kindergarten where it was drilled into everyone else.

For others who are more of the opposite of the original poster's wife (as I am), we have a bunch of invisible mental flags attached to almost every thing, place, or person and we constantly filter everything we see or experience through them. The flags vary, but they tend to be connotations like

--functions/doesn't function
--useful/not useful
--makes noise/doesn't make noise
--where it belongs/not where it belongs
--needs doing/does not need doing

Depending what the flags are, we are constantly generating or ranking to-dos and opinions, or updating our sense of progress, movement, or place.

In my experience, you can't teach a more universal sense of thing/task/place awareness by any methods other than a) having someone constantly help you with it throughout childhood (as it takes years to achieve) or b) being taught it in the military, where you have to learn it, you can't really push back, the penalties for not mastering it are highly disagreeable, and everything is laid out in step-by-step procedures that you end up memorizing through repetition and drills.
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:09 AM on December 1, 2011 [7 favorites]

We now have a funny story about how my husband once woke me up to ask where the mayo was after "looking for it forever!" I was too tired to deal with it, sent him to steal his mom's and went back to sleep. When I woke up later, I opened the fridge to get my breakfast and the mayo was sitting in the front of the fridge, at eye level, with nothing in front of it or even very close to it. I took a picture with my phone and sent it to him. He laughed because he knows that he's unobservant, and he knows that I love him anyways. That being said, sometimes it drives me batty.

Ways we've dealt with this:
1. Made some organization system (as best we can with a toddler in the house) so things have places, and he knows where it is.
2. Had discussions about when things need to be done. Like the breakfast dishes can't stay on the table after you are done, you put them in the dishwasher (we've had to compromise to where this is the goal, but as long as it makes it to the sink I let it go), clothes don't get thrown on floor, but in basket, etc, so that he doesn't have to observe that things are dirty and need to be dealt with, they just are along the way as a rule
3. I let it go about 85% of the time when he has minor slip ups on these rules, as long as he's doing something along the right lines because I can sort it out from there. Other times there are some mild mocking (which is mild, and fairly rare so that it doesn't get old) about his unobservedness so that I keep my sanity and can remind him of things.
4. I keep track of/find things for him. He will always ask me where things are, and I generally know most of the time, so I just tell him or, often more often, take a break from things and go find his lost wallet because even him looking isn't going to find it often.
5. He understands how he is, and so when I have to do these things for him he doesn't get upset and think I think he's stupid. This seems to be the one your wife needs to work on the most. You might need to talk about a way you can provide help that won't make her feel stupid (even if you never mean to make her feel stupid), so that she can accept help.

Mostly it just requires some discussion on what sort of instructions might help her in situations where she's looking for things (for example, using distance measurements never helps me (half inch from bottom of screen? how much is a half inch again?) and what sort of rules she can take being imposed to cut down on clutter and issues related to that. And then acceptance on both your parts of her inabilities.
posted by katers890 at 11:19 AM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

You're bad at noticing things. What strategies have you used to compensate for this? How has your spouse helped you in this?

It's easy - I ask for help. My SO has a magical object radar that causes invisible things to reappear right where you'd expect to find them. Like the spatula - you know the pancake one - it's in that second drawer usually - but now IT'S NOT THERE'S ALL THIS OTHER STUFF THE PANCAKES ARE REALLY READY TO FLIP WOULD YOU FIND IT FOR ME PLEASE THE SMOKE ALARM IS GOING TO GO OFF AGAIN!? And POW, spatula reappears in the second drawer and triggers homing signal directly to her brainradar and five seconds later, pancakes are flipped.

I sometimes really just can't see things that are right in front of me. We think it's a fascinating difference and it's one of the ways we make a good team. No defensiveness anywhere.

Where I part from jessamyn's excellent answer is that I think you are right to realize some things are important to you but not to her, and just handle that. If you prefer shoes in a certain place but it's not important to her (notice this is not really a problem with observation?) and you take it upon yourself to just move them when they're in your way, I think that is the perfect way to handle it. It doesn't have to be made into anything more complicated than that.
posted by fritley at 11:20 AM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have terrible observational skills and always have. I couldn't describe to you what any of my friends look like - glasses? facial hair? wedding rings? I have no idea. I have compensated for this by writing down EVERYTHING that I might need to know - like directions, shopping lists, detailed instructions, I write it all down. I learned how to read maps and rely on my skills at navigating rather than noticing and remembering landmarks.

How has my partner helped me with this? Well, she's accepted it and has not made it a problem. When there is something she needs me to notice, she'll tell me. We have an elaborate system of body language to make each other look surreptitiously at people/things so that we can talk about them later, because if she didn't cue me in at the time, there's no way we can have the "did you notice he wasn't wearing his wedding ring at the bar?!?!" conversations.

When chores need to be done, she says it. Not in an "I need you to dust the living room" kind of way, more in a "the living room needs to be dusted" kind of way. Just giving me the observational info that I might not have picked up on. I don't feel embarrassed or ashamed for not noticing the living room needs to be dusted. I know on my own that things like dishes have to be done daily, laundry weekly, and I sure "observe" when I'm running out of underwear, so routine tasks like that aren't a problem.

Really though, she just accepts that I don't notice things, helps me notice things I need to (without overdoing it, which would be really patronizing), and gently teases me about my obliviousness.

The downside of having great observational skills is that those people (in my experience) get drawn into gossiping quite easily, and judge things like clothes and hair more. If I don't notice who looks like they spent a night on the couch, I sure won't be telling anyone else about it.
posted by arcticwoman at 11:21 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your wife just processes information differently than you. I cannot take directions to get to a place, you can tell me to left or right turn all you like and I'll just look at you blankly. Draw me a map and I'll have that sucker memorized and know exactly where you mean. Tell me a phone number I can't remember it, write it down and let me see the numbers and I have no problems memorizing it.

Visual clutter will actually make my brain shut down or if people move my things out of sight, I hate people putting my things away because then I can't find them.

Don't roll your eyes or make "it's just in front of you" comments to your wife either, my husband did that early in our marriage it made me feel he thought I was stupid and I went very passive aggressive on his arse for a while and refused to find things until we finally worked out a way to make our different styles work.

He let's me store things in ways that I find easier, with labels in neat boxes so I am looking for a word not a thing amongst other things. Your wife's method might be different but if have more flexibility in the way you process this info it might be worth finding what method works for her for keeping track of things and you use that method and her logic instead of trying to make her use yours.
posted by wwax at 11:22 AM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

My husband has fridge blindness too. But I have no idea what Shell station you're talking about. (That place with the old guy with the dog? Oh yeah, I know that place.) We notice different things. I wouldn't describe either one of us as unobservant, but different things are important to each of us.

You say you think your wife is very smart, but you describe her as "poor" and "bad" at noticing things. You'll be less frustrated if you just accept that you see things in different ways.
posted by chickenmagazine at 11:28 AM on December 1, 2011

I totally get get where Jessamyn is coming from here. At our house there's very little that's normal. My girlfriend is particular and myself and both her kids have OCD & tourette's diagnosis. We don't share many tics though there is some overlappage and they're often in competition with each other. I can really help to know the difference between "something I don't like" and "avoid that - there's no arguing with brain chemistry".

That being said (and issues of coping strategy aside) I would like to offer a clarifying question. From your description it sounds like you picked a couple things to illustrate why you wonder if there isn't something clinical to ask about. There's certainly a difference between being a little absent minded and not noticing the gas station on your block. I can't offer you much guidance there but I can offer a little anecdotal perspective:

I am really bad at names. I can identify you from your walk, remember what I raced 15 years ago and how I split those race, tell you what we had for lunch the day you bought that sweater in the spring 2 years ago but I'll be damned if I can remember the all the names of the 15 kids I coach on a daily basis. My girl friend was the first one to really notice that it wasn't just names though. Phone numbers, colours street names all seemed to be a bit fuzzy. Then I hit a bad patch at work with a horrible boss and a lot of extra stress. Turns out I couldn't find a noun of any description for the life of me. I could give you 3 words that rhymed with the name of that utensil,note that it wasn't exactly a trident but not be able to ask you to pass the fork.

I was not half as aware of the problem as she was. Some investigation and it turns out I have a seizure disorder that explains a number of seemingly unrelated medical issues and have probably been undiagnosed for 30 years.

At this point I would really like to 1)apologize for any derailment 2)stress that I am not a doctor, therapist or anyone else with a qualified opinion 3)likely offering something personal because it's a hot button topic for me and not because anything you've said is particularly distressing 4)not in anyway suggesting that this one anecdotal data point should be cause for _your_ alarm.

What I would like to note is that people exist on all kinds of spectrums. I see you asking a couple related questions that might be summed up as 1)is this normal? 2)should I be worried? 3)how do I deal with this? 4)should I deal with this/is there a magic cure? Some of those questions being rather more explicit than others. Please correct/ignore me if I'm wrong.

The best piece of advice I can offer is that knowing and understanding helps tremendously. Knowing what specific things she doesn't notice will help avoid future expectations. Knowing what buttons you push will help avoid those conflicts as well. If you can honestly say, upon careful reflection, that $x, $y & $z behavior seems really out of the norm then finding a way to get her to a neurologist can either confirm or deny an underlying issue. Worry begets fear which is the mind killer, no? Knowing helps.

You may also want to speak with a counsellor or therapist before engaging with your wife on the subject. It's far too easy to get blinded by the circumstances and miss the big picture. The more worried (if you are worried) you are the more important I would think it be to get a little help sorting your own mind out first. If, given thought and consideration you still think it's worth pursuing with your wife who is, quite justifiably, going to be sensitive about the subject it will be very difficult to avoid presenting your concerns in a way that doesn't boil down to "I think you're crazy" or "you annoy the hell out of me".

Tread carefully, embrace the robustness principle, love your wife.
posted by mce at 11:32 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Play to her strengths. If this is not one of them, learn to accept.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:33 AM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

You might be able to overcome some of this by figuring out how she conceptualizes things so you can learn what/how she observes. So if you give her directions and she has trouble, when it's all over you can say, "OK, my instructions didn't work that well; tell me how you would describe how to get there"

It's the same with computer interfaces. My mom can have weird difficulties finding the thing I'm describing because she's been lured into clicking a large sexy button that seems "close enough" to what she wants. What helps is to ask her to describe what she's looking at before I tell her what to do; this way I know exactly what she's looking at and I can use her own terminology when I describe the next steps.

For finding stuff, I try to orient from large to small; in your example I would tell my mom to look in closet X, on the floor, toward the left, in a long bag that's blue and white. If I start with "blue and white bag" I think she sometimes gets the wrong picture in her head ("there was a blue and white striped tote bag in the garage last week") and the rest of the description doesn't register because she's already decided "in the garage" or "tote bag" and stopped listening.

When it goes wrong, it's invariably because I assumed we were starting from the same place; making sure I know where she's starting from (physically/conceptually) saves a ton of aggravation on both sides.
posted by stefanie at 11:38 AM on December 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

Regarding your household maintenance stuff: I know it sounds silly/condescending, but Post-It notes can help a lot. My boyfriend is like this. Even though we've agreed that he will do Task X around the house when it needs doing (taking out the recycling, wiping the counter, whatever) he often doesn't notice the full recycling bin or the dirty counter. So when something's gone unnoticed, I leave a Post-It with "Recycling" or "Counter" somewhere very obvious - the bathroom mirror for before-bed tasks or the back of the front door for as-you're-leaving tasks - making sure to also write "I love you" or add a note about what I want to do that weekend or whatever.

You say in your fourth example that you realize your wife isn't leaving her stuff around to purposely frustrate you, but as others have mentioned, a little bit of frustration is still leaking out in your post. Working out a system like Post-Its where you do the noticing for her (which you're doing already), notify her, and then she executes the necessary tasks could go a long way towards reducing some of your frustrations around the house. Obviously, your mileage may vary in terms of the actual system you set up, but just make sure to check in with her to make sure she's not feeling infantilized.

You're right that she's not going to become a better noticer, so she might feel relieved to have the onus of matching your level of observation lifted off her shoulders so that she can just focus on what needs fixing/cleaning.
posted by superfluousm at 11:44 AM on December 1, 2011

For what it's worth - does your wife get around well? People with good navigation skills don't notice landmarks because they don't need them - they're not connecting the dots to get from the dry cleaners to the pizza place, they KNOW where the pizza place is and they just go.

As far as tidiness, yeah, negotiate a few things that matter to you. (helps if you explain why having x,y, or z in the wrong place offends your nostrils or make you take another 10 minutes to cook dinner, or will wreck the finish on the hardwood floor.)

Why do you care what she can and cannot find on a computer? She's a grownup and clearly functioning just fine.

We are all missing all kinds of things all the time. I for instance have to stop and think carefully when I am looking at graphed data because the flaws in the data set and the wrongness of the display choice won't leap out at me. But every single day I am stunned to see how little notice people pay to their dog's attitude/mental state/reactions.

Some people are bumbling around in a fog or so self-absorbed the rest of the world doesn't exist. Most of us, though, have a set of things we attend to and if we're lucky the majority of what we attend to is more conventional than not.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 11:51 AM on December 1, 2011

I agree that this is a communication issue. What happens when you ask her for directions or where something is located in the house? If she doesn't use landmarks, how does she do it? Because the most helpful thing you can do is use the same sort of style when giving her directions. If she uses distances, use that. If she says that somethings "x blocks away," use that. You'll need to speak her language, as it were, so you need to learn it first.

Pick the sort of thing that were you notice a difficulty in communication and learn her language. Ideally, this isn't about either of you changing but both of you learning how the other operates and doing the best you can to communicate with each other.
posted by GilvearSt at 12:07 PM on December 1, 2011

I'm like your wife. If something isn't relevant to me, I don't notice it, and what's relevant is a small subset of what exists. I'm messy because I don't notice the mess so it doesn't bother me, I don't know where that gas station is because it wasn't important, etc. (I'm a programmer and love computers so I know where everything is on the screen, but that's because it's relevant to me.) I think the cause is that I have so much interesting stuff going on inside my head that I don't want to waste attention focusing on the outside world unless absolutely necessary.

This drives my wife batty sometimes, especially w/r/t to the mess, and also it's obviously a problem in various areas of life, from work to noticing when the gas tank is empty. Therefore I use coping mechanisms.

For example, I sometimes make myself look around at the mess consciously. For example, if my wife is going to come home soon, I take a look around to see what's going to piss her off and then I put it away.

When I'm searching for something like in the fridge and I know it's there but I'm not seeing it, I do a conscious exhaustive in-order search. I look at the top shelf very very carefully until I'm SURE it's not on the top shelf and then move on, in order.

I pretty much never drive anywhere without a GPS and an exact address.
posted by callmejay at 12:27 PM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Probably a communication issue you may want to work on, related to different cognitive strategies you take.

(Oh, and I am totally like your wife - my family has a long-standing joke about how we were once driving in the car past a small herd of buffalo, and I missed it, and...who the hell misses a buffalo??!?!)

1. I think a lot of this relates to how I take in a scene, as it were, and how that differs from how others take in a scene. The thing is, though, sometimes when I am given "clear" instructions, I get confused, because from my perspective, the instructions aren't really clear at all. A lot of this comes from the fact that I kind of look at things in the big picture - looking at all the elements of a scene at once, with no preference for any detail. Example:

Friend: Look! The first tulip of spring!
Me: Where?
Friend: At the base of the streetlight.
Me: Where?!
Friend: That one! To the right!
Me: [looking off in an incorrect direction]
Friend: Oh no! You missed it! How could you have missed it!?

Thing is, though, we live in an urban area - there is a streetlight every 12 feet along the road. And if I'm in the passenger seat and not looking across towards the driver, they're all to my right. And I can see, like, 8 of them from where I am sitting, and I am kind of looking at that all at once. So, those clear directions are pretty meaningless, because I am wondering whether he means the streetlight that is almost in my blind spot, or the one a block up, in front of the yellow house. They're both to the right, they're both there. I need more info.

2. I am a bit literal. If someone told me to look for "a blue and white bag about a foot and a half long on the floor of closet X," but they forgot that it's actually not on the floor, but stacked on some shoeboxes in the back, I might follow their directions literally for a bit and not see the bag. Additionally, if there are any other blue and white bags in that closet (note, probably not the same kind you're thinking about, but any combo of blue and white), then that throws me off, because - there are two blue bags! which one?!

3. I don't have a car, so I rely on public transport, light rail, and my own ambulation. I actually navigate really well. I go to new cities on vacation and hardly ever get turned around, even without a map. But the moment you start giving me directions that are, fundamentally, driving directions, I'm lost. I don't drive. I don't notice freeway exits, because I never take them. This information is meaningless to me.

4. Sleep-deprived, absent-minded professor-type, bla bla bla, too busy thinking metatheory to care about this petty material world, etcetera...

So, yeah. Try a different way of communicating. This could be due to a lot of factors - how she thinks, how she's stressed out, the way she navigates, and so on - and the truth is that, while your instructions may be totally clear to someone who thinks like you, they are completely unclear to all the people who think like her. So - try to reformulate how you talk to her and see how that goes.
posted by vivid postcard at 12:45 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've got some lack-of-observance issues myself. I'm very visual so I simply won't recall information given by sound.

I need you to draw a map. Your verbal description of where a button is on the computer is only minimally useful. I can't remember anyone's names if people just say them-- I need nametags. And although you might think my clothes are randomly arranged on the floor and my desk is covered with papers-- I know exactly where things are when I can see. (If you "tidy up", I might be pretty confused though, because nothing's where I left it in my head).

In some ways I'm much *more* observant than some of my SOs/familymembers/whatnot have been. I can tell you where on the page and how far through the book a random quote from a novel is. I remember technical details from courses I haven't studied in fifteen years.
But no, I have no idea that there's a shell station on the corner. Just draw me a map already, ok? We have pen and paper for a reason.

Your SO might have a different set of cognitive biases than me, but the point is that there's a way to work with her, and that she's not inherently better (or worse) than you because of how her mind works. It's simply *different*, and the right thing to do is figure out how you can best present info so she can absorb it. (Bonus: if she presents info in a way that's confusing to you, maybe you can try to figure out how to have her present things to you more in line with your needs, too).
posted by nat at 12:45 PM on December 1, 2011

Does she have blue eyes?

I ask because I think some blue-eyed people can have the same defects in their visual pathways that cause some Siamese cats to have crossed eyes, although they don't have to have crossed eyes to have the defect.

Basically, the lack of pigment in their irises correlates with insufficient 'homing' chemical in parts of the brain the visual nerve fibers need to grow towards in the process of development. This causes some bundles of fibers to grow to the wrong places, and makes the parts of the retina which are sending their input to the proper place have patchy holes in them, with the patches sending their input to the wrong place in the visual cortex.

Intriguingly, given her interest in mosaics, this could result in a mosaic-like visual experience when looking at a uniformly-colored object with a section of the retina where there are patches, because the patches will send a patch of that color off to some other part of the visual field where it doesn't belong, and there may be something odd in the perception of the object where the patch is, though that's not clear to me. Perhaps she likes mosaics partly because objects with randomly shaped different colored pieces are her ordinary experience.

My blue-eyed partner, whose eyes cross when she's tired at night and reading, and who has troubles with depth perception, has all your wife's issues, except that she knows her way around our complicated city like no one else I've ever met, and is very tidy.

Does your wife ever commit spoonerisms when she reads aloud?

Reverend Spooner-- who apparently did actually make some of the kind of errors which bear his name, though probably none of the famous ones-- was an albino who read his lectures aloud, and I think those errors can be attributed to his retinas spraying fragments of words around to places in the text where they didn't belong. And albinos have crossed eyes at a much higher rate than the general population.
posted by jamjam at 12:54 PM on December 1, 2011

I happen to have exceptionally good spatial–temporal reasoning. That means that I can transform and relate mental images in space and time with accuracy.

Want an example? I am not in my bathroom right now, yet, I can tell you that the walk-in shower in my apartment is just over a meter wide by a meter deep (a small square shape) and is about two meters tall. I can do this because I have the ability to recall a three dimensional mental memory of my bathroom at will. I can also tell you the location of every object in the shower and surrounding shelves.

Why am I telling you this?

Because when I first began teaching physics (where this skill is very useful), I learned that not all people can do this. Some people tend to remember physical spaces as hazy mental images that only have a few important objects in focus. those people will be able to tell you that there is a TV in your bedroom, but not how far it is away from the door or what is sitting next to it. For them, the memory of the room has only the TV and bed in focus with everything else blending into a continuum that comprises the "rest of the room" (or so they tell me).

This is not a smart vs stupid thing, and I have no idea whether it is a development of nature or nurture, but I do know that it is unreasonable to expect someone who lacks exceptional spatial–temporal reasoning to describe and remember their environment like I do. It is like asking them to look at a foggy street and tell you exactly were the mailbox is located a block away. That is just unfair.

My point is that we all see the world threw different eyes and interpret it threw different minds and we all have a different set of skills. Understanding this is a part of being a decent human being.

That is possibly the why. As for the what do I do? jessamyn's suggestions are excellent.
posted by Shouraku at 1:00 PM on December 1, 2011

Probably beating a dead horse here, but this is totally communication and expectations, not perception skills. We all notice and understand different things. Some folks see the signs, others the social signals the signs give, and other just that there are a bunch of things in the way of the natural world. Additionally, we don't have a good way to talk about how we think about these things. It just isn't in our language. So, you get a lot of metaphors that describe thinking like Google Maps instead of landmarks or seeing icons with arrows connecting them instead of the physical location.

As you noted, your wife is perceptive in come contexts. I suspect that you just notice different things, and for whatever reason, the things you don't notice are not nearly as annoying to her as the things she isn't noticing is to you.

Part of it is also attention and interest. I'm a very visual person and as an architect I both describe and visualize complex assemblies and spatial relationships using only words when talking with engineers and contractors. At the same time I've had to resort to putting tags on the drawers of my dresser to remember which one gets the long sleeved shirts and which the short sleeves. After about eight years of using the same piece of furniture and still being confused, I just surrendered my pride and did what made things work.

So, I suggest that strategy. If you can shift from pride to what works, for both of you, you'll do fine.
posted by meinvt at 1:58 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding stefanie's comments. Large --> small makes a lot more sense for navigating, even though it's the opposite of how we normally express locations/addresses in English. (stupid English)

Also, is she more word-oriented than picture-oriented? "Highly regarded in the office" sounds like she might be. Maybe she notices written words like street signs more than visual landmarks like the gas station. If so, see if writing things down would help her, which might require leaving little notes around the place or texting her reminders of things that need doing.

Lastly a general observation: even the most unobservant or distracted people will notice when things don't FEEL right. They'll ignore the note on the door, but stick it to the door knob and that crinkly paper sensation will get their attention every time. Likewise, leave your notes in places that obstruct normal operation (like over a keyhole or power switch) and they'll be seen.
posted by Quietgal at 2:03 PM on December 1, 2011

- finding stuff: I try to be very specific about where something can be found ("in a blue and white bag about a foot and a half long on the floor of closet X") and many times she won't be able to find it.

Try this:

"Where's the X?"
"Do you know where the Y is?"
"It's right next to that."


-- in a blue and white

What color blue? Baby blue? Navy blue? How much white is there? A lot or a little? And is it white, or ivory?

-- bag

Is is a bag or a duffel or a suitcase or a purse or a...?

-- about a foot and a half long

Hold out your hands about 18 inches apart. Measure that distance. Now ask your wife to do the same. Now, measure that distance. I promise you that neither will match.

-- on the floor

Like, literally on the floor? Or just near the floor? Do you mean it's on the bottom shelf?

-- of closet X

What is closet X? I don't use that term. Is that the closet where we keep the bath towels (which is different from the linen closet where we keep the sheets)?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:19 PM on December 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

Basically, the more detail you provide, the greater the chance for miscommunication.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:20 PM on December 1, 2011

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

To draw something well, you have to be able to really observe it. The book teaches you how to really see things without the usual mind-babble verbal-noise filters.
posted by evariste at 4:04 PM on December 1, 2011

I have that problem of not seeing things right in front of me. And, its not pleasant. And, I don't have blue eyes. I've heard that its a personality thing. Some people just aren't as "sensory". Personally, I just have this tunnel vision and things in the periphery that I am not concerned with just don't register. It's not physiological nor does it have anything to do with how busy I am. When people are trying to make me see things right in front of me, I tend to panic sometimes (because I know I wont see it!) and then I don't see it!!

I can only address this aspect, not sloppiness (though, that is also a personality thing. Some people just don't realize that you need to pick that stuff up and put it somewhere, believe it or not!). If I have to find a gas station, I have to know that its on the same side of the road as my favourite grocery store and its just on the corner after the traffic lights. Since its on the right side, I don't have to worry about the making a left at the lights and looking for the gas station at the same time, so that helps too. I have to want to go to that station badly enough and go there a couple of times by myself to remember where it is.

I have struggled with this seeing thing for as long as I can remember. I am also a scientist by profession and I have picked up subtle observations in the lab that experts have missed (I kid you not!). So, my observation skills aren't defective. It's very hard to explain. No amount of "presence of mind" helps in locating that gift box that dear SO left in the bedroom or the gas station on the corner. I just don't see things of that sort. If I am going to the grocery store, no wonder I have never seen the gas station at the corner after the lights- and I don't understand why I am expected to or why SO would get upset with that. Or heck, why is it so hard for others to grasp that I just-never-saw-it!

What would help me? Not asking a bunch of strangers who love to give out an arm-chair diagnosis- if I get the whiff of it, it will make things ten times worse. You are damn right, I will be defensive. What would help? A considerate partner who would just cut me some slack for not being perfect and just help me find the darn gas station. Because apparently, nobody else can understand why I don't see it!

Not this-

SO- "Honey, don't tell me you never saw that gas station! Its right after your favourite grocery store!"
Me- "But, I..er...I never...um..."
SO- "Are you seeerious???"
Me- (gets upset) "So I never saw it. Whats the big deal? Why do you make me feel rotten just because I have never noticed a gas station?"
SO- "But I just don't get how you could have not noticed..."
Me- "You... jerk!" (Sobs uncontrollably)

Instead, this-

SO-"Honey, don't worry about the gas. You can get it at the Shell station near your favourite grocery store"
Me- "What gas station?!? Where?"
SO- "Keep driving past the grocery store. Its on the right side at the corner, right after the traffic lights"
Me- "But I have never seen one there! Are you sure?"
SO- "Trust me love. Drive past the lights. Its on the same side as the grocery store after the lights. Just drive past the store and look out on the right side after the traffic lights. And, call me if you can't find it when you are there"
Me- "Gosh! What would I do without you. You are so awesome!" (Kisses)
posted by xm at 7:49 PM on December 1, 2011

It sounds like you're a Sensor and she's an Intuitive (perhaps with inferior Si, meaning it's her last weakest function). Have you taken an MBTI test? The messiness and artistic streak and high intelligence paired with extreme spaciness resonate with me. I'm usually not "present" in my surrounds as I'm taking in general concepts and feelings as impressions rather than sensory details. Do you tend to have slightly different conversational styles (i.e. you recall specific words people said, colors, food/smells, facts vs her abstract way of speaking)? That's another indicator that you might have different ways of perceiving the world in terms of cognitive functions.

When I have to work with Sensors (or live with them - y'all ~75% of the population, supposedly!) I have to make my system of organizing things as simple as possible. Putting stuff in big colored bins versus in a specific box on the 5th shelf, having a huge hamper for dirty clothes in an easily accessible place, having organizing/cleaning parties in which a loved one helps me to tidy up at the same time every week while stimulating my easily bored, detail and organization-hating brain helps.

I'd suggest getting a GPS for the car for your wife, too. I'm hopeless with mapquest directions (any form of directions, actually, since you can't make intuitive leaps and improvise with them) and street names, and that ain't gonna change. Lots of compassion and gentle teasing with your wife about this, and recognizing her strengths in areas where you're weak, could help you both to appreciate the perceptive abilities you each have. Her "view" may be less practical, but just as valuable since it rounds out your perspective of world as a couple.
posted by sunnychef88 at 8:51 PM on December 1, 2011

I think there is an actual reason that women might tend to get seen as more oblivious of their surroundings than men, at least in U.S. culture.

Reason being: a woman's eye contact with men seems to signal "I'm interested in you!!!!" to many an over-eager male. Somehow making eye contact seems to suddenly become an invitation to conversation.

Realize, it doesn't have to be even just the majority of men on the street who have to be over-eager. It just needs to be a couple of over-eager, socially clumsy or creepy guys and suddenly a lot of women will be much less prone to looking up, avoiding eye contact (or smiling) of any kind.

Women are also taught to walk straight, business-like, and not to meander when alone in an unfamiliar area.

All this "not looking around" has the effect of making one more prone to keeping one's eye on the prize; staring straight ahead, or at one's feet.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 12:44 AM on December 2, 2011

Oh wow, it's nice to know I'm not alone in this. My husband is completely like this and now at least I can try and understand where he's coming from, also, not get angry thinking it all comes from him being distracted by work all the time. I don't have any suggestions, but just a general thanks to the OP and all the great answerers.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 7:04 AM on December 2, 2011

I'm like this! Sort of. It's nice to hear about so many other people - I'm the only one I know. Other people have given you some good advice, so I'm going to try to help you help her be less defensive, which is essential if you're going to approach her with any of these workarounds. She needs to accept that something needs to be worked around.

So, the important way to frame this is that she's not deficient, she just has a brain that's wired slightly differently from a lot of people's, and her strengths lie in certain other areas (as you mention, there's a lot of stuff she's good at). For example, I would be the world's worst eyewitness - I can't describe what people look like AT ALL (on the plus side, at least I know this, and won't just fill in the details with guesses like most eyewitnesses). But I also read much faster than most people. Know why? Because I don't picture anything when I read. This is sort of hard to explain, but I process books, even novels, as pure information.

So, my suggestion is you figure out what it is that your wife is uncommonly good at, figure out if it may be the other side of the coin for her non-noticing tendencies, and then lead with that when you bring this up.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:58 AM on December 2, 2011

A person very dear to me is extremely unobservant. I know it can be frustrating. I walk around the world with a filter that detects Things That Need To Be Done and Things That Might Be Important Later. It's like my survival mechanism. I always have 17 lists in my head. I know where this person's wallet is, which garbage can is almost full, that the laundry needs doing, where the floor got dirty, and so on. At. All. Times. I am also efficient and believe in doing housework in tiny amounts frequently, rather than in unpleasant large bouts. If I walk past a dirty dish, I will bring it to the kitchen, because it takes no extra effort. If the space that I am in is disorganized, I feel unsettled, as if a large list of chores is looming over my head. This other person is the complete opposite. They have absolutely no idea about any of this stuff unless such issues become pressing and relevant to them. Giant messes? Items strewn around? No idea where their wallet is? They take no notice until there is a problem to be solved, such as needing their wallet or needing to throw away trash. This person is also frequently defensive and assumes that any discussion of these tendencies is an "accusation". I think this person also assumes that if I am dissatisfied with a situation - for example, if I am the only one who ever notices that it is time to do task X - that I am disappointed with them PERSONALLY.

I don't really know the answer to your question, and it's still something I work on. But I think the most important thing is to be self-aware and communicative about YOUR needs. Your wife just doesn't seem to be the kind of person who needs to know her surroundings and her plan. Perhaps you are. What you can do is help her understand that you look at things differently and have different needs, and that both ways of being are OK. I think it might be all too easy for her to assume either that 1) you are incredibly obsessive or a neat freak or otherwise unable to relax (and the problem would go away if you'd just chill out), 2) that she is bad and inconsiderate (and you resent that about her) or 3) both at the same time, despite the seeming contradiction.

I think that for people who aren't big noticers, it can be extremely difficult to imagine why those of us who ARE noticers do it. They get along just fine in life, and they seem to spend SO much less mental energy on "worrying about things". They may see us as up tight. And for noticers, it can be extremely easy to start thinking of non-noticers as people who need executive oversight/help/direction all the time, because they don't seem to do a whole bunch of "necessary" things without prompting.

Just being aware of ways you might be viewing your wife, and ways in which your wife might be viewing you might help.

Let me know if you figure this out!
posted by Cygnet at 8:00 AM on December 2, 2011

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