This is a guest post from my wonderful husband Brian, aka Dad in Madtown. Enjoy!
Lately I’ve been realizing that I have not been making eye contact with people for likely my whole life. Now that I have a son, I am trying to better myself on all fronts, or at the very least, recognize my faults so I can help him avoid those faults in his own life. “Always look eye,” said the late great Mr. Miyagi. In turn, I’ve been trying to work on it. The toughest part is actually just remembering to do it but I guess that’s true with anything. This eye contact thing doesn’t come naturally to me. I understand some of the reasons why it makes sense to look someone in the eye. Namely, it’s a trust thing. If you’re not looking people in the eye they think you’re hiding something. Understandable. What do they think you’re hiding? Well likely that you are a terrible person that is ashamed of their life and can’t even face the 7-11 clerk without having his world of depravity reflected back in the disapproving eyes of those in front of him. Something to that effect I imagine. Fortunately for me, I think it was that my Mom never looks people in they eye and I wasn’t brought up that way so I don’t. Either way, I’m working on it now.
What I’ve started to realize is that perhaps all situations do not call for looking people in the eye. It is very nuanced. The clerk at the Starbucks is probably the easiest place to do it and even that has its’ subtleties. I guess people that make eye contact naturally just know when it is and is not appropriate to start and stop so as I said, I’m working on it. When she’s talking to me, clearly I should be looking her in the eye. But when she is counting out my change, where do I look then? Do I cast my eyes where her eyes will be when she is done and have my eyes wait for her. Do I bend down and look in her eyes (obviously not), do I pretend to be looking elsewhere during this time then bring my gaze back when she hands me my $2.32? That is a timing thing and I guess will just come with practice. I’ve heard of these corporate executives that have these life coach people that basically practice skills like interviewing people, firing people, talking in meetings, presenting, etc. that give them advice on how to act in public and private situations. Maybe I need one of these people or perhaps just a psychiatrist. I have seen personal progress though. The other day at Panera, the woman diverted her eyes from me first, I saw that as a win.
Distance and environment are also two areas that affect proper and socially acceptable eye contact. I went on a walk the other morning and of course was working on my eye contact. I was on a nature path where I encountered my first fellow human. She was walking two dogs and you could just tell she was a happy, cheery lady and I raised my head high, made eye contact and gave a booming “Good morning!” She returned as enthusiastically and all was well in the world. What a nice human-human interaction. I continued walking, now on the street, and the sanitation truck turned a corner in front of me and started coming my way. I gazed up at the man who indeed did make eye contact back and I am almost positive he hurled a derogatory term for an effeminate man in Spanish at me with a condescending laugh. Another human-human interaction. Not so positive. Perhaps you don’t look at sanitation workers or maybe because he was whizzing by he didn’t care or maybe he didn’t think I knew any Spanish or maybe he was just an asshole. Either way, I guess it’s all part of the game. I take my son out on a lot of walks in the woods. As a general rule, I try to say hello to people I pass (now with special attention to eye contact.) Some people say hi back, others don’t, that’s just the way it is. I impart to my son that we always take the high road and say hello regardless of how many people don’t respond. I would not tell him this regarding passing garbage men so maybe that’s a good yardstick.
The last humanoid I encountered on my walk kind of put this all into perspective. I was almost home from my walk and a woman came marching up a side street perpendicular to my path. She was walking 3 enormous strong dogs and really had her hands full. I was kind of tired at this point and perhaps was subconsciously reeling from my Spanish insult so I kind of gave half-hearted eye contact and smile at this woman crossing my path. She gave me a half dirty look and pulled her dogs that were trying to sniff at me in the opposite direction of me. As she was crossing the street she addressed her dogs and said these words to them: “Look forward and only pay attention to yourself.” She was saying this to the dogs as much as she was saying it to me (in my mind anyhow). I reflected on these words on my way home. This interaction actually just made me smile. It made me smile because, yeah, that’s how I was brought up to think. Just mind your own business. Other people are at worst danger, at best, annoying. Just go about your day and get done what you need to get done. And here I was consciously trying to put myself out in this way even with a small gesture and was greeted 2 out of 3 times with some form of aggression. But does that mean I should stop? Be discouraged? Let the aggressors rule my behavior? Hell no it shouldn’t. Of course, I have a-ways to go in learning the conventions of an eye contact life that may have prevented some of these aggressors form responding the way they did, but I will continue to work on it and teach my son, probably unconsciously, how to behave in this way. So if you see a weirdo giving you the side-eye at Denny’s, it may be some schmo like me or perhaps he is a guy wearing a rubber diaper and you should indeed look forward pay attention to yourself.