Tag Archives: face to face communication

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.

 

 

The Decline of the Dialogical Model

A common view of communication is that it is a process of exchange.  We listen.  We talk. The arrows flow in two directions.  Conversations become sustaining in ways that disembodied messages can’t match. 

                                                 Pixabay

With notable exceptions, the dialogical model of communication is in decline. The persistence of effort required in sustained conversations is in short supply. We find it harder to maintain the attention needed to hear what another is saying, struggling to engage brains that have been rewired to accommodate the pace of  the digital drumbeat. To get my car serviced, I now explain a problem while the service agent enters data on a screen with its own fill-in-the-blanks rubric. Many patients describe the same experience when they see a doctor. And even that minimal level of connection is lost as digital robots take over the customer service functions of more businesses.

Communal spaces designed to encourage easy exchanges between individuals now function as ersatz phone booths. The phones come out as individuals sharing a public space drift into their own informational worlds.  Devices of all sorts have become forms of protection against expending energy in direct engagement.

Even if fewer real bodies ever make it to our front door, our digital threshold is traversed all the time.  And so what is obvious is also consequential: the din of intruding messages are seen as welcome  opportunities to avoid the eyes of another who might expect a response.

Why does the retreat from direct conversation matter?  Innovations can enhance or disrupt our species’ innate inclination to seek relationships with others.  Some can serve as extensions of our natural tendencies for sociality: tendencies that show up in birthright impulses such as empathy and other-awareness.  But personal media often do the reverse as well, pulling us further away from the lives and experiences of others. Smartphones make it easy to mistake the disembodied fragment of another person for the real thing. 

Another sign of the decline of the dialogical model is how quickly we now fatigue of the effort required to sustain attention on another.  Communication has always had a performative function that makes us duty-bound to at least fake interest.  But for many, face time with another hardly seems worth even that minimal effort. Richard Linklater and others may write movie scenes featuring direct and revealing conversations.  That’s the method of his remarkable trilogy about a couple that concludes the film Before Midnight (2013).  But the rich conversational palette of his films stands in stark contrast to a world of Americans with eyes shuttered to the sensate world in favor of the small screen.

The favored pattern now is better represented with self-obsessed figures defined more by their strong interjections than their willingness to be a witness to others in the flesh. The preemptive rhetorical strikes of the President or a stand-up comic seem to reflect the times.  We now have many more models of figures who need to exercise their expressive urges as short judgmental rants. The President’s preferred medium of Twitter come across as shouts issued from a person unaccustomed to listening. They are the functional equivalent of the honk of an annoyed driver, a middle finger raised in a gesture of defiance, or a rant unleashed as a digital “comment.” Each is the same one-way form of communication-as-declamation.

All of this means that our expressive muscles get a workout, much more so than those tuned to the rhythms of another in an authentic conversation. To get conversational muscles back in shape and functioning again, consider a few modest suggestions:

  • Never give preference to a device over another person in the same space.
  • Ask yourself if your ‘screen gaze’ is becoming your public face.
  • See if you can find the time to hear another person out. 
  • Save the tough stuff for a face to face conversation, but… 
  • Find time to also talk about the fun stuff.