Sunday, July 13, 2008

Eye contact and ancient instinctive behaviors

In a discussion on the Always Learning list I came to a pocket of ideas too big for that list. It might be to big for this blog, but at least it can sit here and collect clues and links over the years. Bob Collier wrote the first part. He has an evergrowing set of links and commentary with some really great stuff, and I'll put that link and the link to the discussion from which this came below. Bob:
It's interesting that maintaining eye contact is so often promoted as the 'right' way to interact with another person. It clearly in my experience doesn't produce rapport as effectively as interacting in whatever way the other person is comfortable with even if that means no eye contact at all.
I imagine there is something subtle going on as to primacy, something instinctive and inavoidable. Our culture has taught us (and our grandparents for a thousand years or more) that instinct is bad--ignore it. Strive to overcome it. Work through faith in juju, or logic as laid out by philosophers, or doing what your relatives tell you. Always let your culture be your guide—unlike that crazy Jiminy Cricket talking about thinking for yourself, only he WAS talking "conscience" and not instinct. Conscience is the collection of rules and messages and warnings we carry around to hold our problems up to (if we're lucky). Fetal alcohol syndrome can prevent that from happening. Some people harden early and have emotional scars where they should've been building a conscience. So if "make eye contact" become part of our conscience—one of the things on the checklist to do to be a right and good person—that's not bad. If "be sensitive to others" follows pretty quickly, we'll probably all survive. I can be sensitive to others who would prefer less eye contact. They could be sensitive to me by at least looking at my ear or my hair a few times so I don't feel totally ignored. If that's harder for them than my part is for me I'm sorry, but the whole culture can't sway to accommodate people with problems making eye contact or shaking hands. If gaze is part of the animal behavior we've been called on to ignore (but we can't, really, we can just be ashamed of it or accept it), then there's something to it that words and wishes can't take away. If I can make contact and someone else can't, then I'm alpha in that second, or I'm being challenging. It's the way bullies intimidate people. It's the way CEOs get ignored. It's why some adults let their mothers push them around.
It was my mention of handshakes that caused me to want to leave it alone or make it bigger. So for people who come by here, what do you think about eye contact? What have you been told, or read? What about cultures where people bow? Isn't gaze part of the formality there too, so it's taught? There will surely be more written in that topic here (starting with July 12). Bob Collier's site is WAS I've amended this link to a 2008 wayback-machine save. There's a lot of reading available, but the current site (in 2022) is someone else's, and different. Bob's work earlier helped a lot of people.


Schuyler said...

Man, drat. I'd just done a bunch of research and found all these really cool links and now it is gone. Blasted Firefox failure!

Okay, what remains is a paper on culture and eye contact, a paper on infants and eye contact, a review of a study done on children's eye contact aversion and the difficulty of the information they'd been given, a paper with cool brain images on autism and eye gaze aversion, and that's about it.

I'm going to leave this comment even though there was something else that I was thinking about.

Schuyler said...

I couldn't find the other thing.

Anonymous said...

My husband sits in his chair and stares at the t.v. while i'm talking with him. I have asked him quite a few times(with annoyance)SP) if he heard me? and he says: I don't have to look at you to hear you! Then i said" well, you can't me my expressions. I know how men talk (leaning against a truck ;) but he is the one who always says that communication is everything in a relationship so do you think he should make a small effect to glance my way once in awhile?
Also...I feel more comfortable making eye contact longer while talking with people i that common?
Heather Greek

Sandra Dodd said...

Don't talk to him while he's watching the TV. Or if it's a DVD, ask if he could pause it. Or if it's the commercial ask if he could mute it for a minute.

My dad was like that, if he was watching a show. He didn't want to miss anything. I'm like that sometimes, when a show can't be paused.

-=-Also...I feel more comfortable making eye contact longer while talking with people i that common? -=-

I think it is.

Katy said...

When I was growing up my dad worked in Mescalero quite a bit, and had friends who were Apache. He told me when I was pretty young that it isn't part of their culture to look people in the eye like it is ours. Later when I worked at our Community college I took a seminar where they discussed this. They talked about Apache kids getting in trouble at school because the teachers wanted them to look them in the eye. But that is an insult for them. I laugh when I picture a kid being yelled at to "Look at me!" finally turning and staring the teacher in the eye, the teacher is happy she got her way but doesn't realize that she is being insulted! :-)

Elisha said...

I've always tended to avoid people's gaze when they're talking, and I did learn the "look at their nose or eyebrows instead" trick. But anytime I'm standing there worrying about which way my eyes are pointing, I'm not listening to what they're saying. I can look or I can listen, but not both at the same time, and if I really do care what someone is saying then I'd much rather listen. They know I'm listening because I ask follow-up questions and continue the discussion, whereas if I'm looking at them I'm probably just going to keep nodding absently whenever they pause. I never can hold a normal gaze, anyway, it's always a glazed-over artificial one that probably looks worse than just looking down at my hands or something.

Anonymous said...

Well, I was told that because my son didn't want to make eye contact with the teachers.. it was a symptom of autism.

Sandra Dodd said...

Candy, I hope that wasn't their own symptom!! Sheesh!

Anonymous said...

You would have to be a pretty uncaring jerk to dismiss whole segments of the population because eye contact is physically painful for them (or not possible due to visual differences).

You also would be missing a lot of really wonderful things in this world. If I dismissed people because of lack of eye contact, I would have missed a partially blind father, a doctor who has saved my life several times but only looks at the ceiling and floor when talking, a loving and compassionate husband, and a son who means more to me than anyone in the world. Oh, and most of his friends, and a whole host of other inspirational people in our lives.

Eye contact is overrated.

Sandra Dodd said...

-=-You would have to be a pretty uncaring jerk,,,-=-

Well gosh, I don't want to be an uncaring jerk. But it doesn't make someone a jerk to choose to be around people who can make eye contact because it is comfortable for them.

We don't need to divide the world into those who do and those who don't, but calling people jerks when you can't even SEE their eyes is worse than looking at someone or not looking at them.

Sylvia said...

I'm not really comfortable with eye contact myself. I'm perfectly happy to put down whatever I'm doing, and look at another person's face, which if it passes for eye contact and someone's happy with that, great.

I'm more bothered by folks who feel a need to look me in the eye. Having someone stare into my eyes while I'm talking feels intrusive and not at all welcome.

Knowing I have different feelings from many folks on this one, I do my best to give them that what they want.


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