It’s easy to forget how much we give up when we send words in place of ourselves. The inability to make eye contact begins to starve communication of its hold on us.
A recent New York Times report describes managers at “fast casual” restaurants assigning staffers to greet new customers with a reassuring and direct “welcome.” Apparently businesses found too many first-timers leaving if no one in charge acknowledged them. It’s a specific application of the more general principle of a direct gaze as the near-certain requirement of interpersonal engagement. Child development specialists remind us that an infant’s search for its parent’s eyes is not only a joy, but an early sign of a child’s readiness to become a social being. Only weeks after birth infants begin to seek out the eyes of their parents. It’s nature’s way of cementing the bond that assures that the many needs of a relatively helpless newborn will be met.
It’s also a given in the business and academic worlds that connecting effectively with another person means returning their eye contact. This can vary from culture to culture. But it’s own norm. Even experts offering advice for choosing a new pet from the pound note that a good bet is usually an animal that gazes on our face. And it’s clearly true that our pets are veterans at the game of shamelessly using those looks of expectation to get us on our feet to provide some useful service.
It seems that the poets were right. We look into the eyes of others as if they were “windows of the soul.”
Try a simple experiment to test the essential nature of direct eye contact. Talk to a friend or relative face to face, but look at one of their ears rather than their eyes. The poor victim will often move to try to adjust to your off-kilter stare. They want to be at the center glidepath of your eyes to find signals of your engagement. Looking away suggests you want to break off the exchange. It seems that the poets were right. We look into the eyes of others as if they were “windows of the soul.”
Of course what is going on is more than reciprocal staring. We have an entire lexicon of signals that are modulated through the eyes and the facial muscles that surround them. Ask an actor to perform the emotions of surprise, concern, fear, or joy. Most of the work of suggesting these inner states is going to happen within the pupils of the eye and the muscles of the eye-lids brows immediately above them. Often these are the only tools a film or television actor has, since they are usually shot in tight closeups. Witness the last half hour of Damien Chazelle’s much-praised La La Land (2016). The final scenes of the former couple are predicated on our noticing eyes that lock as if they still had a shared future.
What is obvious here still needs to be said. The more we shift to mediated forms of personal communication—texting, phoning, e-mail and their equivalents—the more we explicitly violate this fundamental norm of communication. Like most, I delete some unread e-mails with the gusto of a chef cleaning up the debris on a cutting table. It’s easy to forget how much we give up when we send words in place of ourselves. Indifference to the channels we use and an unwillingness to make eye contact with our circle can starve communication of its hold on us.