The Necessity of Acknowledging Others

We sometimes prefer the electronic facsimile of others over the live person directly in front of us. The result can inflict its own small wound of rejection.

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[Under a different title this is among the first pieces I wrote for this site nearly ten years ago. The subject of acknowledgment of others remains a core communication skill. Expecting your gaze to be met by a passerby makes no sense in a large city. But in a small town this simple act of silent or verbal greeting has been the norm. But even that is now withering. Our digital devices and inclinations make us happier to be alone among others. In this piece I was groping with this shift of the eyes frequently down and away from another, even when passing within their personal space. With the smartphone we have chained ourselves to a visible distraction that usually did not invite the intrusion of another. My view that it should be otherwise may seem naïve. But I remain convinced it remains a violation of who we were born to be. This act is a social checkmate, since named “phubbing.”]

The Important Person has just turned the corner at the far end of the hall. She’s with an associate, walking in my direction. In another few seconds we will pass each other in the middle of this long narrow hall. Will the Important Person notice me? Will her glances to her associate give way to a glance in my direction? In the Important Person’s world do I even exist?

The essential ritual of acknowledging another is a cornerstone of our sociality. “Communication” can mean transferring the most complex of ideas or feelings. But stripped to its essential core, it usually includes simple gestures that confirm another person’s existence: their basic worth. This basic process of affirmation can be in real time or communicated electronically. As with the example of the pending encounter with the Important Person, it’s most interesting to observe in the flesh. The body language is so clear. We are in constant search of facial cues from others that we matter to them, that we have status, that we are an agent of potential value.

This ritual has its cultural rules that vary somewhat from society to society. In American life most of the work of affirming or denying recognition is done with the eyes, where looking in the direction of another is the signature act of recognition. The establishment of this plane of mutual eye contact is essential. Saying something to another simply doesn’t work very well if we can’t catch that person’s gaze.


Imagine another common but more complex scene. With another person I am eating dinner in a crowded restaurant. Its layout is a typical arrangement: a continuous banquette along one wall faces a series of small individual tables. In this series of “table for two” arrangements I am in the chair and my partner is seated on the banquette against the wall facing me.

Here’s the challenge. This arrangement poses a problem for waitstaff. The server’s mandate for good service means he or she can’t fully engage people on my side without establishing a plane of direct eye contact.  But they will need to perform the physically uncomfortable task of specifically addressing us by leaning forward and to our side to meet our gaze. I can make the task easier by turning my head in the server’s direction, or next to impossible if I don’t. And I’m impressed, because doing this wrenching twist of the body to show deference must leave a server with a sore neck.

On a crowded sidewalk the possibility of direct eye contact provides the opportunity for more “communication” than most people want. It’s too much work and perhaps risky to try to acknowledge everyone whose personal space is momentarily invaded. In such circumstances we do look at people and their faces, but this gaze is usually stolen: timed to be more or less unseen by the other. This kind of unseen glance preserves our isolation until we are again among people where there is an expectation of reciprocity.

                (AI image)

If you are in an environment that might be broadly considered a community—for example, an office, a college campus, a faith community, a school—the averted gaze in another’s presence is also common and usually off-putting. With those we know we expect an offer of acknowledgement through eye contact. This is the source of the anxiety in the first example of encountering the Important Person. But communities must now also contend with what I call “screen thrall:” the increasingly ubiquitous habit of community members to look away from approaching others, shifting attention down to their cellphones. It’s endemic in most settings, even when individuals are known to each other. My impression is that, for some people, it has become its own reflexive norm.

Perhaps my complaints make me sound like someone who might long for the return of phonebooths and party lines. Not so. It is just a far bigger deal when a core function of social exchange has been so hobbled. The ironic effect is that a mobile device now works not just for connection, but also isolation. The stance characterized by screen thrall says, “I’m not available” or maybe “You are not on my A list.” It is another case where we sometimes seem to prefer the electronic facsimile of another person over the one directly in front of us.

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