Tag Archives: eye contact

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 Necessity of Acknowledgement

Source: SHED-5-restaurant, Melbourne, Australia
Source: SHED-5-restaurant, Melbourne, Australia

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. In another few seconds we will pass each other in the middle of this long narrow hall. 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 simple gestures that confirm another person’s existence: their basic worth. This basic process of affirmation 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 value.

This ritual has its cultural rules that vary somewhat from society to society. In American life 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 gaze.

Imagine another common but more complex scene. With another person I am eating dinner in a crowded New York restaurant. Its layout is a typical arrangement: a continuous banquette along one wall faces a series of small individual tables, as in the photo above. 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 on the street 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 stolen glance preserves our isolation until we are again among people where there is an expectation of reciprocity.

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.

Source: Cindy Chew, S.F. Examiner
                Source: Cindy Chew, S.F. Examiner

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  the 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 to looking away from approaching others, shifting attention down to their cell-phones. 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 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.

Comments:  woodward@tcnj.edu