Tag Archives: phubbing

The Necessity of Acknowledging Others

We sometimes prefer the electronic facsimile of others over the live person directly in front of us. The result can inflict its own small wound of rejection.

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[Under a different title this is among the first pieces I wrote for this site nearly ten years ago. The subject of acknowledgment of others remains a core communication skill. Expecting your gaze to be met by a passerby makes no sense in a large city. But in a small town this simple act of silent or verbal greeting has been the norm. But even that is now withering. Our digital devices and inclinations make us happier to be alone among others. In this piece I was groping with this shift of the eyes frequently down and away from another, even when passing within their personal space. With the smartphone we have chained ourselves to a visible distraction that usually did not invite the intrusion of another. My view that it should be otherwise may seem naïve. But I remain convinced it remains a violation of who we were born to be. This act is a social checkmate, since named “phubbing.”]

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, it’s 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 restaurant. Its layout is a typical arrangement: a continuous banquette along one wall faces a series of small individual tables. In this series of “table for two” arrangements I am in the chair and my partner is seated on the banquette against the wall facing me.

Here’s the challenge. This arrangement poses a problem for waitstaff. The server’s mandate for good service means he or she can’t fully engage people on my side without establishing a plane of direct eye contact.  But they will need to perform the physically uncomfortable task of specifically addressing us by leaning forward and to our side to meet our gaze. I can make the task easier by turning my head in the server’s 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 a sore neck.

On a crowded sidewalk the possibility of direct eye contact 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 is momentarily invaded. 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 unseen glance preserves our isolation until we are again among people where there is an expectation of reciprocity.

                (AI image)

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 also 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 what I call “screen thrall:” the increasingly ubiquitous habit of community members to look away from approaching others, shifting attention down to their cellphones. It’s endemic in most settings, even when individuals are known to each other. My impression is that, for some people, it has become its own reflexive norm.

Perhaps my complaints make me sound like someone who might long for the return of phonebooths and party lines. Not so. It is just a far bigger deal when a core function of social exchange has been so hobbled. The ironic effect is that a mobile device now works not just for connection, but also isolation. The stance characterized by screen thrall says, “I’m not available” or maybe “You are not on my A list.” It is another case where we sometimes seem to prefer the electronic facsimile of another person over the one directly in front of us.

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The Bond of Eye Contact


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.