Category Archives: Rhetorical Mastery

The Pandemic Has Not Lessened the Value of Direct Eye Contact

The pendemic left us with crippling distances from each other. It’s easy to forget how much we give up when we send words in place of ourselves. The concurrent inability to make eye contact starves communication of its hold on us.  Even in the best of circumstances, the meta-gaze of a Zoom call is never going to be the same as the direct eye contact in real space.   


A recent New York Times report describes managers at “fast casual” restaurants insisting that staffers greet new customers with a reassuring and direct “welcome.”  Apparently businesses found too many first-time customers leaving if no one in the business acknowledged them in the first minute. 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.  It’s nature’s way of cementing the bond that assures that the many needs of a relatively helpless newborn will be met.

                              Lars Plougmann

The expectation of eye contact with another is a floating but existing norm across most cultures. 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 soulful looks to get us 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 and the 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 their owners believed they still had a shared future.

What is obvious here still needs to be said, especially after we begin to abandon the enforced isolation that came with the pendemic.  We may need to retrain ourselves to use rewarding face to face exchanges. The more we continue to hold on to mediated forms of personal communication—texting,  phoning, e-mail and their equivalents—the less we will exercise what should still be a natural inclination.

Most Americans who are around children have given a collective sigh of relief to see youngsters return to the classroom. Masked, they may be.  But their eyes can still connect, with all the positive recognition of another they can give.  Back in school, we know they have regained their birthright to build connections and create meaning–all without going through the confining hardware of digital screens.


A New Consciousness About Extractive Practices?

Tinges of regret about the ecological effects of land use need to surface as part of the sustainability conversation.

More Americans who are telling their stories now do so with a degree of regret.  With the effects of climate change more likely to be top of mind, there seems to be some useful shame associated with family histories built around various extractive industries.  Celebrations of vaunted “American initiative” from generations ago can now sound foolish, given increased awareness of the true costs tied to the exploitation of natural and sometimes human resources.  Mining, oil and gas production, farming, quarries and logging are probably the most common reference points. But we also have internet businesses that use up precious social capital by abusing the trust of others. Think of social media like Facebook, click-bait scams, or the selling of personal information gleaned through online selling.

True,  it is easy to quarrel with Shakespeare’s famous line that “The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.” Still, we would like our own family albums to be free of relatives who were rapacious exploiters of the land or its inhabitants.

Financially Successful and Ecologically Disastrous.

There are, of course, the worst of the worst: generations of slave traders and owners, or religious and political leaders who carried out the forced removal of ethnic and indigenous families. But I am thinking of less dire personal histories that include discussions of land-use practices that violate the newer norm to tread lightly on the earth. Thankfully, the rhetoric of professionals in ecologically sensitive fields is now more likely to include their own misgivings about earlier work in extractive industries. For example, several recent authors have lamented their employment in organizations that have left scars on millions of acres of forest land.  Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree (2021) and Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees (2015) each contain their authors’ regrets about the kind of forestry they were required to do for various governmental agencies.  Both argue for a more wholistic approach to forestry, mostly as a repudiation of the industrialized tree farming. In Simard’s case, some of the organizational practices she witnessed included clear cutting complex old growth forests to make room for monocultures of non-native and quick growing money trees. “I come from a family of loggers,” she notes, but “with taking something comes the obligation to give back.” Her heartbreak over reckless forms of tree removal sometimes came down to the taking of a particular “Mother” tree in one of Canada’s arboreal forests.

We have yet to hear much from those whose family wealth has come from natural gas fracking, mountaintop removal for coal, or the squandering of natural aquifers. And there are many additional industries that have been financially successful and just as ecologically disastrous.

                                                         Clear Creek

I cringe now to note that some in my own family several generations ago were engaged in silver mining in Colorado, which optimistically might have meant only tunneling within a mountain. But other methods of extraction were much more destructive. Hydraulic mining for gold, for example, blasted creek beds with high pressure water to expose tiny nuggets of valuable metal. Mammoth hills of rock and oceans of slag water were created for just a few ounces of the metal. If nature had been allowed to run its course, mountain streams like Clear Creek west of Denver, should still have rugged but vegetated banks, As it is, many spots along the river are vegetative dead zones with piles of grey river rock that can sustain very little.

More than ever, we need biographies of regret to be part of the climate- change discussion. They have the power to bring our attention to the worst of these practices.