Hey, my eyes are up here.
Now that we’ve begun on a note of bafflement, aka my steady state of being, let me clear this up: I’m the one often being told that.
Before you brush off your tsk-tsker, know it’s not about looking-somewhere-inappropriate gazing, but more of the “Hey, look at me. Look at me!”
It has been pointed out by crowds, including exes, close pals, various work and creative partners, and at least one professional communicator, that I rarely make and maintain eye contact.
I know it bothers folks, because I can see them — my peripheral vision stays zeroed in — waggling or turning into another angle, as if the lack of contact was due to a malfunction of guidance systems, and they’re trying to help re- center my crosshairs.
If you’re one of those so offended, dipping, ducking, diving and dodging in vain, I beg your patience. You see, the thing is, well. …
I don’t like you.
Nah. More joking deflection. In another of human biology’s little ironies, much in the same way our brains shut down when we need them most — in an adrenalized emergency, at the beginning of any crucial test, on stumbling across someone enormously attractive — the eyes might be glancing away precisely because you’re liked.
Or you could just be plug-ugly, though possibly not. As I’ve grown older and more increasingly grotesque, so has my tolerance and affection for, oh, shall we say, the differently attractive.
Maybe I hate your guts. Find you repulsive. Or your aroma overpowers my olfactories, leading to a full strike and work shutdown. Or I see that you’re drunk or stoned, and just don’t possess the patience to endure discursive monologues. Or I see that you’re about to ask for something, and I don’t have the time, or the cash.
Or you’re just being human-normally friendly, and I’m, while residing in public space, locked into a private frame of mind. Or really, any of a plethora of excuses, based on my idiosyncrasies, mostly.
Though do address that perfume thing. A fragrance should be an enticement, not a violation.
Passive-aggression is a game the whole species can play! If you’ve ever felt the sensation someone was checking you out, only to turn your attention and catch them NOT looking back, here’s a way to Sherlock it. Turn your eyes directly on them, but just for a moment; more than a millisecond, less than a “one one thousand.” Then look away to an object, like a clock, dartboard, or TV. Keep your peripherals on, and you’ll see the person who was checking you out look in the same direction.
It’s a neat trick, right up there with making susceptible people yawn simply by fake-yawning yourself, or even saying the word yawn. Try it, after you get through yawning yourself.
There are folks — I’m easing into a third-person, tired of being seen — who feel, intrinsically, without putting a name or thought to it, that the eyes truly are windows to the soul. What’s more vulnerable than an eyeball? At least you can close your mouth, and cover, pad and protect other fragile bits. Keeping the peepers wide is one of the most highly-recommended manners of navigating a physical world.
In Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil,” he wrote: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” I read that, and Edgar Allan Poe, far too young, and probably misunderstood both. Various mental-health conditions can explain lack of eye contact as well, but I’m not sure if my “Just an awkward weirdo” falls on any spectrum.
When interviewing face-to-face, I use a grab bag of approaches:
• Study notes. Though the truth is I can take notes without looking, it’s an easy excuse, backing off the burden of all that soul contact. As a bonus, it makes an interviewee think I’m deeply invested, fascinated by what they’re saying, and a flattered subject will warm up, and thus be more likely to relax and sound like their actual selves.
• Look somewhere really near the eyes. This is the least effective method, though, and can backfire. Just as in the uncanny valley, when something looks almost as it should, yet there’s just something slightly, eerily inhuman or unreal, people can tell. I’ve had my eyebrows, ears and nose studied, and frankly, none of them are that fascinating. I can tell when someone suffers like me, striving to be better with eye contact, but feeling pressure, and thus resorting to close-by glancing.
• Shades. There are reasons I keep 13 pairs hanging around, and not just because I lose them as readily as I misplace guitar picks. If there’s any sort of sunny, bright atmosphere, don the Ray-Bans. They free me up like Scott Summers.
• Fake enthusiasm. This is true of all journalism, or interviewing and studying, and not specific to eye contact. If you pretend you truly care, you might fool yourself into caring, which can keep you shoveling until you hit paydirt.
I’ve been doing this a long time, and yes, I’ve bamboozled many, but more importantly, myself. The fake-attention trick should be taught in elementary school, if not sooner.
I’m tempted to rope in Ted Lasso again, but no one’s yet found proper attribution for “Be curious, not judgmental.” It’s certainly not Walt Whitman, as stated on the Apple TV hit. Co-director of the Whitman Archive Ed Folsom told Snopes.com “… It is one of 10 or 15 ‘quotes’ often falsely attributed to Whitman. I deal with these all the time, since people assume I’ll be able to give them the source of the quotation.This one, like several of the other false attributions, now appears on posters, T-shirts, and coffee mugs, and the internet keeps spreading the quotes through Facebook and other social media, so soon the false quotes are better known than any actual Whitman quotations!”
Our old pal irony again: People claim to love a writer, so they put their words out, in front of others’ eyes. Yet they don’t know the writer well enough to spot falsehoods. Any social-media pal of mine can attest 85 percent of my posts are nudges along the lines of “Look that up before you slap Mark Twain’s name on it.” So many misattributed words hurtling through the internet-iverse don’t sound anything like the Missourian’s verbose, whimsical gymnastics. A hint: He didn’t typically deal in pithy one-liners.
See also Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Buddha.
Letting people into your eyes is like throwing your front door open at midnight, answering every phone call, or, you know, trusting people.
It’s said there are two types of actors: Those who crave the spotlight, and those who want to become someone else, precisely because they dislike being looked at. They might even dislike who they feel they are, or who they think others see.
There’s an adjunct, that many enjoy watching actors precisely because the gazed-upon can’t look back — save for the terrifying specter of “Oh god, the cast is coming into the audience” nightmare shows — and thus we can eyeball as long and longingly as we’d like to, in real life.
It’s not anti-human, anti-personal, to let attentions drift into theater or film, into fantasy: It’s at least in part about yearning to become the dude who steps up confidently, takes everything in, and lets attention go, and stay, where it may Someone who trusts.
To react, which many say IS acting, you’ve got to focus on others, not just listen, but look intently. Few things suggest love more succinctly than extended eye-lock. Of course, they could also be feeling eye-locked hatred. That’s the kiss or kill of intimate stage contact.
Whenever I start a theater project, I’m my usual gawky self. But an odd thing happens after a reading or two, in early rehearsals: I’m taller. My head lifts. My eyes lock on, look in, take stock, take time, open.
It’s almost like faking enthusiasm can create something real.
Reach Tusk Editor Mark Hughes Cobb at email@example.com, or call 205-722-0201.