We all occasionally find ourselves in conversations where we have the strong impression that the other person — the one we’re talking to — doesn’t even listen. They have tuned out; they’re absent.
1. They are absent, of course, only in a metaphorical sense: for obviously, they are present physically; and they are not entirely disconnected mentally, either: they can return to full presence in no time, once there is something to interest them, or some other force to compel them back. What, then, does it mean, precisely, that they have become “absent”?
It’s not that easy to pinpoint where the parallel is here. For in contrast to a physically absent person, the interaction channels are still open: the other person still sees you, hears you, and may even (though in an “absent” way) respond to you.
2. So maybe it’s because they are absent “in thought”?
Could we perhaps say that, instead of paying attention to what you say, they are thinking about something else — typically something that is already past (e.g. something they experienced an hour ago, in traffic during rush hour), or something in the future (such as what they’re going to have for lunch; or simpler: what they intend to say next to you), or even something in their imagination entirely (such as what they dream they’d do if they were on vacation at the beach instead of speaking with you)?
Well, if drifting away in thought makes us “absent”, what does this metaphor tell us? First, we should notice that its formulation is actually misleading: most of the instances just given are not examples of thinking, but rather of imagining oneself elsewhere (in a different situation, i.e. in the past, future, or an imaginary place). They are instances of seeing something with the inner eye, of reliving experiences, often emotionally. Thinking, in contrast, is much more abstract — less immersive. So “drifting away in thought” is a misnomer: it would be better to say “drifting away in images” (not unlike an immersion in, say, a movie, a novel, or a video game).
But, secondly, the formulation does pinpoint something important: we say that someone is metaphorically “absent” because their conscious mind is not present (i.e. not present in the conversation). They are not actively listening and understanding, but their awareness is on something else (even if it isn’t thought, but more likely images). It’s the soul of the absent conversation partner which has temporarily eluded the situation; or, to put it differently, the metaphor points to a difference in psychological dynamics: a psychological presence with the conversation vs. a psychological absence in images (memories, daydreams, etc.). Both presence and absence are poles in the metaphorical space here. And I think the main difference is that we associate (mental) presence with directed consciousness (awareness and active participation) and absence with unconsciousness (being swept away by the imagination or affect, being immersed in images).
3. Absent conversation partners, then, are a very light (and common) case of withdrawal from the external world into the psychic interior, a kind of tentative first step in what could become (if extended), a journey to the metaphorical underworld.