Social Skills 101: Eye contact means you are listening. *eye roll*

 

The logical jumps we make in social etiquette are questionable. The assumption that eye contact means that someone is listening is as solid as the logic here:

listen-smell

Image Description: Screenshot of Dan Akroyd in GhostBusters playing Dr Raymond Stantz, with the quote “Listen, do you smell something?”.

Only, in Ghostbusters, this was a joke. And it is exactly how we should approach eye contact expectations; lightheartedly.

Eye contact does not guarantee honesty, or any other important characteristic. Some people can “read” eye contact, and that’s great, but all an insistence for eye contact does is perpetuate the idea that there is a “normal”. Our most basic communicative request asks for conformity, which makes sense; it means we are following the same rules. But what about people who can’t? Or find that eye contact actually limits their ability to socially interact?

If we take a glance at the research, eye gaze has been shown to provide information that a part of the population can decode, among these people the following has been found:

  • interaction can be invited by gazing at another person, returned gaze generally means acceptance of the invitation, while averting the eyes is a rejection of the interaction.
  • Gaze aversion (averting your eyes) can be used to ignore and punish behaviour.
  • Friends engage in more mutual eye contact than strangers.
  • People who seek eye contact while speaking are considered to be friendly, believable and earnest.
So, ‘normal’ social communication insists on eye contact because it provides a proportion of people with information about the person they are speaking to. But this is ableist and, by it’s ableist nature, ignores difference. Let’s revisit the points from above with the help of someone who can’t read eye contact and see what they think:
  • interaction can be invited by gazing at another person, returned gaze generally means acceptance of the invitation, while averting the eyes is a rejection of the interaction. Nope, most of the time I won’t notice. If I’m staring back at you it’s either because you are staring at me and I have no idea why (this is unlikely) or I just happen to be staring in your direction. Maybe don’t take it so personally.
  • Gaze aversion (averting your eyes) can be used to ignore and punish behaviour. I prefer not to look directly into someone’s eyes, for the same reason that I don’t like staring into their nostrils: It’s weird.
  • Friends engage in more mutual eye contact than strangers. Okay, but it must also mean that they spend more time together so, statistically speaking, this is obvious. People have eyes that move. If some people can read eye movement then increased eye contact makes sense, not to mention that eyes are sensitive so perhaps with strangers we are cautious about eye contact just in case of attack?
  • People who seek eye contact while speaking are considered to be friendly, believable and earnest. I don’t know how this is still accepted as fact, if anything this assumption is a vulnerability that should be addressed. Surely it also relies on the way in which the person is speaking, what they are saying and how they are seeking eye contact.

As humans, it seems that our empathy is either low, selective, or both. People who fit expectations of “normal” assume that there is little else and, further, that difference somehow means lesser. It doesn’t. Difference means “a point or way in which people or things are dissimilar”.

If someone doesn’t want to make eye contact with you, don’t worry about it. If you find it hard to read someone who doesn’t make eye contact with you, then you know what it’s like not to be able to read someone; not easy. Make an extra effort in trying to understand and communicate with the human being opposite you.

The solutions to a lack of inclusion are not difficult, they require flexibility, empathy and effort. Things that people who experience exclusion must exercise on a daily basis.

eyeballs

Image description: picture of a finger with a smiley face drawn on and the following quote written around the finger, “and now I know it is perfectly natural for me not to look at someone when I talk. Those of us with Asperger’s are just not comfortable doing it. In fact; I don’t really understand why it’s considered normal to stare ate someones eyeballs  – John Elder Robison”.

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