Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Stare

I don't know whether you would have noticed or not, but maintaining eye contact feels awkward, even creepy. At first; then it just feels powerful. I’ve read a bit about eye contact during conversations, in addition to what I have seen, observed and noticed, and here is what comes out.

When I was small, my dad could always tell when I was lying. When I was about six years old, he told me God whispered it to him. Since he was religious, I had to respect that. He had a treaty with God. I wanted to hear it. I figured if I knew when it happened, the precise moment, I'd hear the voice of God, too.

I decided to watch my dad's eyes for a sign – some twitch of recognition, some little break in his concentration, anything – that would tell me when he was hearing the voice of God. I told him easy lies, the ones I always told him: that my brother did it, or that I forgot doing it – broke the china, left the gate unlatched. At first I didn't even want to blink, for fear I'd miss the moment when God spoke. But the truth is, I got nothing. No sign. In fact, the more I looked at his eyes, the more I began to realize that my dad had no idea that I was lying. None. He looked straight back at me, waiting to hear the next thing I would tell him. In fact, he was hanging on my words. There was no voice of God. My father wasn't listening to anyone but me. He had no idea when I was lying, especially if I stared him down the whole time.

The trick, I soon realized, was simply to look him in the eye as I spoke. So it was that I became an atheist and a proficient liar in one fell swoop. Such were my salad days.

A person’s gaze has weight, resistance, muscularity. Clearly, there are people who use their eyes well. You know them: the sales rep, the tyrannical boss, mom! Their eyes force the question. These people may be as dumb as streetlamps (I am not saying they are), but they are an undeniable presence in the room. They know they must be dealt with. You know it, too.

It is a very particular skill set. The eye-contact specialist is like the one guy in the game of hockey who knows only how to take a penalty corner. Relentless and a little annoying, he uses his skill, presses his opponents with the fundamentals. It may not work every time, but eventually things work his way. Over time, this habit—establishing and maintaining eye contact—creates favorable situations and produces results. The eye-contact specialist gets talked to first, dealt with most promptly, and responded to most thoroughly. He's always first in line for a reason.

And for the one who's being looked at, eye contact sends a message, signaling acknowledgment, connection, and attention, signaling something, I think, like empathy. Being seen is, on some level, being felt. It's nice to be acknowledged. Even so, why does eye contact, wielded freely, always feel like a weapon to me? Why do I want to smack people who stare at me deeply while I'm talking about girls or career or for that matter, anything under the sun? Maybe the true signal is less subtle, less friendly than "I'm paying attention to you." Whether he admits it or not, that person is participating in one very large bet that you will blink first. That guy, the one who's looking at you—straight at you, right into you—is getting something that you are not. It's called the upper hand.

Well, that's my preferred hand. So I did my thing. For few days I tried to use eye contact to get what I wanted, with real abandon. It was no small trick. By nature, my eyes drift. I tend to look past people when I talk. I look out the window, examine the horizon. I'm sure this has cost me connection with some people who take it as a sign of being evasive or shifty. When I paid attention to it, I found that my tendency was to click in, lock eyes for a second or less, then look upward or outward into the distance. It's just not my rhythm to stare.

That was the first lesson: Eye contact is not the same as staring.

People don't like the dumb indifference of a stare. My first attempts at maintaining eye contact were so self-conscious that I took to picking a point on the person's face – as close to the eyes as possible – and gazing at it as calmly as possible. That was a disaster. I wasn't looking at people so much as I was at a blemish they happened to know very well.

If I stared at a point, say, between someone's eyes or at a mole just above an eyebrow, people knew it right away.

I did this which a friend, and she stood it for about a few seconds before she asked me, "What are you looking at?" She ran her finger along her eyebrow.

So I tried to concentrate on eyelashes, but this made my own eyes jump as I talked. My head bobbed, too, and I was hit with a sense of motion sickness. People constantly noticed my stare. I was forced to apologize, telling them that I was just spacing out, not paying attention – the direct opposite of what I was hoping to convey in the first place. It was as if I had become a mirror in which people saw their own tiny imperfections, magnified by my glance.

Both parties in a conversation are caught almost constantly in the true focus and precise direction of a glance. I had to go for the eyes. There is no faking it.

There have always been people in my life who were good at using their eyes. My seventh-grade English teacher. My boss who’s giving me lots of work these days. My friend the pilot. My neighbour who I always used to fight with. I don't know if I trusted each of these people because they looked straight at me or if they looked straight at me because I trusted them. Yet each could lock and hold my glance for minutes at a time, while I was feeling sick after five seconds. What exactly did they see? How did they do it?

It is clear that the idea of eye contact is not simply to point your eyes in a given direction. You have to use your eyes. I have to take a move. I am sucking it up, and will start to lock in on the pupils. It will take some time, but I’ll come back and share, how it went. Till then, wait.

1 comment:

  1. i guess this is my first comment on your blog. loved the way you have experimented. there is a good book by Desmond Morris - Manwatching - a field guide to human behavior.