Tag Archives: eye contact

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

Seating: A Concern For More Than Brides

Negotiating Table Inside the Joint Security Area Separating North from South Korea Photo South Korean Government
Negotiating Table Inside the Joint Security Area Separating North from South Korea
Photo: South Korean Government

Seating arrangements subtly govern how individuals are likely to respond.  Some arrangements encourage interaction.  Others discourage it. 

Movie stars, producers and other supplicants summoned to the office of Louis B. Mayer in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s complex in Culver City often remember their first impression. Mayer was the very definition of a movie mogul in charge of the studio that defined Hollywood’s “golden age.”  Befitting his place at the center of a industry that worshiped visual impressions, visitors passed through massive carved doors to enter his inner sanctum. Then it was another 60-foot walk between white leather walls to his massive ship of a desk at the far end of the room. The short man who gave us The Wizard of Oz apparently liked the idea inscrutability. All of the office trappings were meant to remind a visitor that any decision that would come out of the meeting was likely to be exactly what Mayer wanted.

Studies of non-verbal elements of communication include seating as a crucial variable.  Seating arrangements subtly govern how individuals are likely to respond.  Some arrangements encourage interaction.  Others discourage it. The arrangement of furniture for a gathering is nearly always consequential as an important communication variable.

Capture.JPG of seating arrangmentHere’s the drill on what to consider. For smaller groups a round table (B) is perfect for encouraging and even equalizing participation. No one has a power advantage by virtue of their place.  Any leader is visually an equal among peers.  Note, too, that at a round table everyone has at least some possibility of eye contact with others: a key variable that helps to encourage participation from the naturally introverted. The downside is that anyone around the table can use even minimal facial cues to undermine a speaker’s point. We’ve all probably used a frown worthy of an M-G-M closeup to telegraph our displeasure at a leader’s point. For good reasons the round table model needs a genuine commitment from all participants to work in common cause.

A rectangular table (A) is more likely to distribute advantages to some and limit participation by others.  In a typical rectangle the power positions are at the both ends.  From these vantage points it is easier to be seen and to control the participation of others.  And so we may be able to push “reluctants” out of their shells by placing them in these positions (even though introverts will often resist being placed at the head of a table).  Conversely, “dominators” will have a harder time controlling a discussion if they sit on one of the long sides of the table on one of the corners. Those positions make it difficult to have eye contact with some participants, especially those on the same side of the table.

A rectangular table is also the preferred arrangement when the objective is to carry on two-sided talks.  Labor-management negotiations, meetings in the “dead zone” between North and South Korea, and other situations where there are distinct “sides” are visually maintained this face-off arrangement.

Source: Wkimedia.org
     White House Cabinet Room                                      Source: Wikimedia.org

Interestingly, in the White House Cabinet Room a President usually sits along one side of the long oval table, not at the head.  But the oval preserves some of the virtues of a round table.  And it looks good in photo ops to have the president appear to be one among others. By contrast, with the serious business of discussions in the basement Situation Room, the President is usually at the head.

Rows of chairs facing a single source, as in the seating pattern represented in  the above diagram as “C” lends itself to giving one person in front maximum control.  It’s an obvious point, but for an interesting reason.  When a member of the audience has only the back of another’s head in their foreground view they have little choice but to give more attention to the presenter, even when that person is some distance away. Audience members are essentially denied most of the non-verbal facial cues that other members can give that would undermine their faith in the presenter’s message.  So arena or “classroom” styles of seating give all the advantages to the single source at the front.

We tend to forget that hundreds died in Vietnam over the Winter of 1968 while talks scheduled to begin in Paris were stalled. The issue? The shape of the negotiating table.  Were these essentially four-party or really two-party negotiations?  Only putting a round table in between two rectangular tables radiating out from the center finally settled the issue. The arrangement saved the South Vietnamese from having to deal with the Vietcong as an equal negotiating partner.  Seating can matter that much.

Comment at woodward@tcnj.edu