The averted gaze preserves our isolation until an expectation of reciprocity forces us out.
The Important Person has just turned the corner at the far end of the hall. She’s with an associate, walking in my direction. We will pass each other in the middle of this long narrow space in another 15 steps. 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 a gesture that confirms another person’s worth. This can be in real time, or communicated electronically. As with the example of the pending encounter with the Important Person, its 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 influence.
This ritual has its cultural rules that vary somewhat from society to society. In American culture 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 glimpse.
Imagine another common but more complex scene. With another person I am eating dinner in a crowded city restaurant. Its layout is a typical arrangement: a continuous banquette along one wall faces a series of small individual tables, each with a chair to complete a setting for one pair. Spaces between the tables amount to little more than a few inches. In this series of “table for two” arrangements I am in the chair and my partner is seated on the banquette against the wall.
Here’s the challenge. This arrangement poses a problem for waitstaff. The server’s mandate for good service means she can’t fully engage people on my side without establishing a plane of direct eye contact. But she will need to perform the physically uncomfortable task of specifically addressing us by leaning in to our sides so her face can be seen. As a customer I can make the task easier by turning my head in her 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 at least a sore neck.
In a crowded place like Manhattan 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 you invade, like those facing each other on a subway. 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 averted gaze preserves our isolation until we are again among people where there is an expectation of reciprocity.
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 increasingly common and usually off-putting. With those we know we expect an offer of acknowledgement through eye contact. This is the source of anxiety in the first example of encountering the Important Person. But communities must now also contend with competition for an individual’s attention from many sources, one of which is what I call “screen thrall:” the increasingly ubiquitous habit of community members of looking away to their cell-phones as they approach another person. It’s endemic in most settings, even when individuals are known to each other. My impression is that for some people it has turned into an automatic response: the equivalent of Bill Murray trying to avoid Groundhog Day’s insurance-selling Ned.
A practical and ironic effect of using a mobile device is that it now works as a tool not just for connection, but also isolation. The stance characterized by screen thrall says “I’m not here,” “I’m not available.” It’s another case where we sometimes seem to prefer the electronic facsimile of another person over the one we know directly in front of us. The result can be its own small wound of rejection.