What you miss if you don't pay attention

We are five women in the hallway, most uncharacteristically checking out each other's outfits before the workday starts. We fill the narrow hall. A male co-worker arrives and necessarily cuts through our group. We hold our breath, carefully avoiding eye contact with each other as he greets us without interest or comment, walking purposefully into his office. Stunned - and amused - we grin and disperse.

Today is Friday, Day 5 of our conspiracy. Through the power of e-mail, the women in our office have coordinated their clothes, wearing a different color each day. Shades of blue on Monday. Black on Tuesday - truly depressing. Red on Wednesday; green on Thursday. And Friday - the highlight of the week - animal prints. We've got stripes: zebras and tigers. We've got spots: leopards and frogs. We've got snakeskin patterns: ground slitherers and droppers-from-trees. What we haven't got is the attention of our male colleagues.

We've all seen serendipitous synchronicity in dress at work. Two guys in adjacent offices wear brown suits; three members of a four-person work group show up in shades of purple, leaving the fourth to joke about "not getting the memo." We decided it was high time to coordinate our attire deliberately.

We didn't truly expect to go undetected all week. To us it was obvious, especially Black Tuesday. Every time a few women stood together, it looked like a funeral. How could anyone miss that? But they did.

Not just one or two men, but a dozen. Engineers, accountants, programmers, marketers, contract specialists, human resources staff, executives - a clean sweep across occupational categories and age groups. Not dullards, either: clever men with a sense of humor. It makes you wonder what you might be missing that is happening right around you.

None of us notices everything. Earlier that year, driving from Edmonton to Calgary, I began to irritate my companion by saying repeatedly, "Oh, look. Another one."

I was pointing out hawks. They circled overhead, sat on fence posts, swooped into a ditch. To me, they were so easy to see that I caught them even while driving.

My passenger, however, was always just too late to see them. His eye wasn't tuned to hawks - but airplanes are a different matter. As a onetime private pilot, he saw every airplane between us and the horizon. He knew whether it was in the traffic pattern preparing to land, or flying through.

He missed the hawks; I missed the airplanes. Animal-print Friday reminds me of that trip.

Back in the office after lunch, finally convinced that the men are really not going to notice, we call the security guard.

"Come up and bring your camera, would you?" we ask. Confused but game, he arrives to find 30 women in animal-print dresses, skirts, pants, blouses, jackets, sweaters, and scarves. A trained observer, he takes one look and laughs.

After we send out the e-mail and digital photo to our male colleagues, one of them comes by my office and says, plaintively, "I guess you'd have to know what animal prints are to notice them, eh?"

I guess so. We don't get into what could explain his failure to notice our matching colors on the previous days. I think he knows what red is: I think they all know. They just aren't tuned to notice it.

It's amazing, the things we aren't tuned to notice, the things we ignore. Our office used to be on the 10th floor of a downtown office building.

On the elevator, it was a highlight of my day if the floors selected made some sort of pattern. One day I was stopping at Floor 3, someone else hit 9, the next entrant hit 6, and then someone got on and lit up 13.

"Oh, no!" I protested almost involuntarily. "Wouldn't you like to choose a multiple of 3? How about 12 instead?"

They looked at me blankly; looked away uneasily. In my enthusiasm for patterns, I had transgressed the elevator protocol of silence. (Now when I see great cribbage hands in an elevator, I enjoy them silently.

Pilots describe someone who isn't clued in to what's happening around him as having "nil situational awareness." If you miss weather and aircraft performance, flight safety may be the casualty. Miss office politics overtones, and career progression may be at risk; miss the nuance of personal interactions, and someone's feelings may take a hit. At the very least, being oblivious means missing out on some of the richness of life, some of the fun, some of the color.

You can overcome nil situational awareness by choosing a new thing to be mindful of every day - a color, a smell, a shape, a word, anything. Even animal prints.

A friend wearing leopard-spotted slacks stops by my desk and asks, "Do you think we could get all the women in the entire city to wear the same color?" Laughing, we head off into our uncoordinated weekends. But you know, it's not that outrageous. It could be done.

Stay tuned. You don't want to miss that memo.

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