Tag Archives: empathy

The Eyes Have It

       Caravaggio                                        Wikipedia.org

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.

The Conversational Fire of Curiosity

 A Vibrant Sense of Curiosity is Always in Short Supply.

        Auguste Renoir, The Conversation

Over a lifetime we may be lucky enough to collect a wonderful mix of friends and family. The rewards are many and varied, but we are especially fortunate if they include persons who have the capacity to explore the revealing details of another’s experience. A person’s innate desire to know more about their interlocutor is an asset that means even more than the ability to listen accurately.

Most of us can often identify a person and a particular place when our connection with a genuinely curious person blossomed into a memorable moment. For me the rewards of this kind of conversational oasis were clearly evident when our family paid a routine visit to my sister’s future in-laws. I was just beginning high school, and had been advised by a parent that Faith was an “unusual” person, often with her head in a book and a penchant to talk about “strange” things like theology and philosophy. Those were considered exotic topics in our practical family.

She may have been my parent’s age, but spending time with Faith was a small but important revelation. For part of our visit of several hours she took a keen interest in what I was doing, what my classes in a new school were like, and what I wanted to do with my life. Then she listened and asked more questions. I’m not sure I ever felt the warm spotlight of someone else’s attention so completely before. I had the feeling that she found me fascinating. I simply had not encountered someone who so completely gave themselves over to the typically modest and confused existence of a middling high school student. In those few minutes Faith demonstrated the kind of intellectual curiosity that I still try to foster with my own students.

Think of conversational curiosity as a rare double-down: listening times two.  Most of us can engage in what is usually the mutual pretense of showing interest in another. That often registers as conversational responsiveness. And it’s a functional and useful courtesy in everyday life. We certainly understand that the reverse is more unpleasant: that stuck-alone-on-an-island feeling when we are on the receiving end of a person emptying their mind of too much accumulated baggage.  As everyone knows, the self-obsessed can suck all of the air out of a room.

By contrast, curiosity is a gift to another interlocutor. At its best it seems to spring from a heightened appreciation of things and events. Where most of us see a single subject, the curious see interwoven threads. When too many of us are dominated by the need to express or judge, the curious have an interest to know or discover.

Curiosity cannot be willed. It requires someone who is relatively secure with who they are.

If this sounds easy, it isn’t. This trait thrives on mental energy that too often gets drained away by insecurities that arise from the need for frequent affirmation. The withering of this impulse is also abetted by our preoccupation with the endless chatter of constant messaging that feeds mostly private fixations.

Effective teaching requires curious questioners who can function as surrogates for others less willing to engage. These kinds of active learners give needed energy to a classroom. Woe to the teacher when they are in short supply. The same applies in the boardroom as well. The CEO of a technology company recently noted that without curiosity “You’re dead.” With it “you’re more inclusive, you question more, and you listen.”[i]

[1] Tiger Tyagarajan, “If You’re Curious, You Hold the Keys,” New York Times, Sunday Business, July 11, 2014, 2.