Tag Archives: eye contact

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.   

                            Caravaggio

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.

 

The Bond of Eye Contact

                                                NASA

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.