Category Archives: Rhetorical Mastery

The Bond of Eye Contact


Direct eye contact is one of the golden features of human communication.  We rightly treasure its power. 

Suppose you are being interviewed by a newsperson.  You have some experience on a subject that’s recently been getting a lot of attention. But taking questions in a television studio can be disorienting. On the receiving end at home, a video interview seems intimate: a one-to-one encounter with an attentive questioner.  But in the studio the collaborative nature of the medium is more evident. There are multiple cameras and their operators.  Others may be standing standing around. There are also the clutter of other sets and equipment in an over-lit and over-cooled room.  In addition, there is a large monitor not far away that will become a mirror when the interview goes live. Most newcomers are jarred by suddenly seeing themselves in pixels.

Where to look? Where should your attention be focused?  A good floor manager will tell a novice to not let their eyes wonder.  In most cases it’s good enough to keep looking at the questioner as she makes her query. If she’s offsite in another location, the director will tell you to look at the camera.  Eyes focused on the lense makes it seem like you are talking to the viewer directly: a kind of gaze that any television “personality” learns to fully exploit.  And therein lies some magic.

It’s obvious that video is an electronic delivery system that can mimic face to face communication with another person.  It’s nature as a “mass medium” is partly concealed by the illusion of ‘personal’ and direct communication.  And it’s the eyes that dominate. Narrative film is another matter.  An actor who looks at the camera breaks the “fourth wall” and usually spoils the shot.  For live television it is usually the reverse.  And it turns out that just ‘being oneself’ takes some practice; the camera lens is understandably hard to warm up to.

The worst result is a novice who stares at the off-camera monitor.  It makes no sense to the viewers at home unless it is also on camera and displays an image of the questioner.

The key variable here is eye contact. It’s one of the golden features of human communication, at least in American culture.  When you were growing up you probably got unsolicited advice from a parent or relative to make a “good impression” when you meet a person for the first time.  A key part of that little lecture probably included the recommendation to look the new acquaintance in the eye as you shake their hand and extend a greeting.

Imagine fewer online trolls, if they had to utter their words directly to their targets.

Most people in the business of person-to-person contact (think of people in teaching and sales) are practiced in giving all of their initial eye contact to another.  To do any less takes away the gift of attention that they hope will be reciprocated. The absence of full attention on so many digital platforms (Twitter, private texts, e-mails, etc.) degrades communication. For example, imagine the potential decline of online trolls if they had to utter their words directly to their targets.  We also have recent studies noting the “phubbing”–looking at a phone while ostensibly giving attention to another in the same space–devalues the relationship for the snubbed. How could it not?  Denying eye contact to another within a close range is akin to telling them you are at least halfway out the door.  It’s not a ‘message’ most of us want to receive.

Apparently bears encountered in the woods and busy commuters in New York City are not fans of direct eye contact.  So be it.  It’s always best to play by the rules of the locals. For most of us, though, meeting another person’s gaze remains a key part of affirming their importance.



The Queasy Rhetoric of Cultural Appropriation

Porgy and Bess                                                                                  WFMT

Many Americans worry when the defining features of one group are used for commercial purposes by another.

Identity politics defines our age and is scattered through the nation’s history.  A nation spread across a continent is bound to be divided into regional and social allegiances, even though these social anchors often trigger thoughtless comments and lasting resentments.

We are all complicit.  Thinking in terms of one’s own community first is a natural impulse. But inevitably sensitivities can be stepped on when ‘outsiders’ adopt or imitate another group’s practices and traditions.  This is a familiar issue with the names of the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians.  Are these sports teams entitled to use native American symbols?  Is the use of key words and symbols an inherent complement to the first Americans, or a commercial gambit the teams are not really entitled to?  Legal entitlement is one thing.  Cultural entitlement is less definitive, if no less involving.  As with so many linguistic issues, applications of a group’s lexicon or symbols are almost always subject to different understandings. And in these days when nerve endings are more exposed, the appropriation of any group’s names and artifacts can raise eyebrows.  In our climate of discontent, even viewing a mainstream Hollywood film from a previous decade can make us queasy.  Why are there only African American actors in 50’s comedies playing maids or butlers?  Why was the lead in the popular Charlie Chan series given to a Swedish American?

What may seem like acts of empathy or flattery to one person can be another’s example of expropriation.

No short essay can do this subject justice.  But the questions we might ask are still valuable.  While Americans in the 21st Century are more open to claims of “cultural misappropriation,” we are still search for the outer limits of this kind of critique.  Who gets to be an authority on Thai or Mexican food?  Who gets to be a French chef?  Likewise, did George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward step over the line to write the iconic black opera, Porgy and Bess?  I’m glad they did.  But was the story of the impoverished residents of Charleston’s Catfish Row theirs to tell?  In its time (1935) Porgy was a daring extension of a  tradition-bound form.  But what may seem like acts of empathy or flattery to one person can be another’s example of expropriation.

We can all cite less cosmic examples of cultural infringement. When I was a visiting professor years ago I can remember my chagrin when otherwise wonderful British colleagues greeted me with an over-the-top “Howdy Partner!,” delivered in a theatrical Midwestern drawl.  Minor stuff for sure; I suppose I could have responded with a fake Lancashire accent. But what would be the point? I would have preferred a greeting in their own voice.

The image of an American melting pot has begun to yield to the realities of a rising tribalism. This idea was behind Pete Wells’ concern in a recent New York Times review of a restaurant built on the side of an old recording studio.  The decor featured lots of images of African American recording artists like Stevie Wonder, even though none of those performers apparently recorded at that 10th Avenue location.  This made Wells “uncomfortable.” “Stevie Wonder will always be cool,” he noted, “but a restaurant dreamed up by real estate developers doesn’t automatically become cool by putting him on the wall.”1  

Is there a legacy–a history, an origin–that is a community’s property, but not necessarily the culture’s?

This issue raises the question of what constitutes fair use of a group’s symbols.   Does the existence of a common language within the culture extend to the words and images associated with a specific sub-group?  Or is there a legacy–a history, an origin–that is a community’s property, but not necessarily the culture’s?

In a famous essay the journalist Walter Benjamin considered a related problem: the difference between original works of art and the sometimes convincing copies made of them.  “The work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” raised better questions than answers.  But he did make the point that an original retains an “aura” that will always make it different and special, even while it may be cheapened by its copies. Our age has simply pushed the discussion forward to the moral question of whether those outside an exploited group have the right to use elements of the group’s legacy.

However one feels about a particular case, the viability of  the idea of ‘offensive misappropriation’ is a clear indicator that bonds to specific communities may now be stronger than bonds to the culture.  That’s surely one reason the idea of “tribalism” has become the word of the moment in discussions about current American attitudes.

1 New York Times, June 20, 2018, p. D7.