Tag Archives: television

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.

 

 

Anchors

                     Sociogram                               Wikimedia

For many of us “connecting” has become synonymous with “communicating.”

The two basic social functions of communication are to sustain our sense of place and our sense self.  A diverse group of thinkers ranging from sociologist George Herbert Mead to communication theorist John Peters have noted that we are sustained by anchors to others we interact with directly.  Those others may be met at home, in the neighborhood, at work, in community groups or through contact with friends. And of course there are the digital approximations of small pieces of us that we send and receive.  Indeed, for many of us “connecting” has become synonymous with “communicating.”  The tiny artifacts of ourselves we send to others are increasingly assumed to be enough.

One of the reasons parenting is so affirming—if sometimes more in theory than practice—is that the dependency relationship between parents and children is concrete and defining. Parenting is a reminder of the burdens and rewards that come from the monumental task of shaping the world of another human being. No wonder some experience the remorse that can come to the “empty nester.”  They have had to relinquish most of the nurturing, guidance and witnessing that–as the cliche has it–gave their lives meaning.

There is also another narrative.  Workers will sometimes admit to feeling guilty about escaping to an office where one’s place is seemingly secure and affirmed.  While many parents can’t imagine entrusting their toddlers to a sitter or daycare, others seem to adapt easily.  Indeed, a number of workers report that life can be more predictable and supportive in the office than at home, where the new and unformed ego in their care has yet to learn that others matter.  With either parenting narrative note that we still end up at the same spot; it’s the direct contact with others that matters.

Can playing video games at a normative six hours a day turn an adolescent into the kind of person he will need to be in ten or twenty years? 

Research twenty years ago pointed to television as the mostly likely threat to the maintenance of self through direct contact.  The concern then was frequently framed in terms of the one-way nature of television, whose characters cannot return the interest we freely give to them.  In this world of “para social” relationships, a person who cares about whether Rory Gilmore will finally succeed as a professional writer–a long plotline in the popular Gilmore Girls–has made a small but consequential shift toward a world that is at once more predictable and attractive than may be the case with one’s own family.  Rory always looks great, is unfailingly polite, and has very clever things to say.  Who might not be tempted to “live” in her simplified universe?  But at best the “relationship” between a television character and viewer is “para-social”–only an approximation of the real thing. Rory can never be who we may need her to be.  She can never be there for us. In terms of a sociogram (above), she could only be represented with a dotted line, an arrow  going toward us, but not being returned.

Here’s the challenge: if electronic media allow us to put our heads in one place while our bodies are in another, are we destined for relatively barren emotional lives?  Does this fact of contemporary force us to sacrifice important social anchors?  To shift examples, can playing video games six hours a day (a gamer norm) turn an adolescent into the kind of person he will need to be in ten or twenty years?

This critique made years ago by Neil Postman and Joshua Meyrowitz, among others, may still hold.  And, of course, the dual pathways outlined here are more complex and blended. But in fact most of us have committed ourselves to interaction at a distance via various social media platforms where feedback is minimal.  We even have a president who seems more comfortable issuing tweets than knowing how to act in the presence of others.

In short, where we are physically is arguably less important today than the digital drop boxes where we have deposited the contents of our heads.  We use these as social substitutions in what is sometimes a long and perilous digital chain. The key question is whether they can provide enough in return to affirm that we still matter.