Eye to eye

Last week I spotted Gordon across the street doing his weekend shopping. I announced myself, and conversation flowed. Gordon is blind, so conversation is a little different from that with my other friends because we cannot make eye contact (indeed I rarely look at his eyes) and he cannot read my body language. However with a few adaptations, communication is as easy as it is with a sighted person. We both make allowances – words are more carefully chosen, interruptions more sparingly used and my use of body language avoided. And, no doubt, we also use clues of which I am not aware. Our conversation tends to be a little slower but ultimately nothing feels lost. Somehow it all works. Compare this to my more everyday meetings; here my relationship with eyes is very different.

Generally when I meet someone, particularly for the first time, I look closely at their eyes, starting first with their more superficial features. Whether it is because I am inquisitive or because I was a nosy doctor, within seconds their eyes will have been scrutinised. Do their eyes wander, wobble or weep? Are they bulging, bloodshot or yellow, are the lenses opaque or clear? Oddly enough, I do not note their colour, assess their ‘brightness’ (a quality I just don’t understand) or try to use them to judge character.

Assuming nothing is amiss, it will be time to scan the whole face looking for more general body language as is transmitted through, for example, smiles, frowns or yawns!

At some point during all this, time is devoted to eye contact. When checking for body language or ‘eye wobbling ’ I do all the work and the scrutinised person is a passive bystander. With eye contact the process is more active and requires cooperation. If eyes are to connect, both of us will have to be involved. And eye contact is no trivial matter. Having contact is a statement of engagement. It is an action by which we embrace the existence of the other person; in which, at least momentarily, we declare some shared interest, some common purpose, some willingness to relate. Not having contact, in some circumstances avoiding it altogether, makes the statement that engagement is strained, non-existent or unwelcome (“please leave me alone”). And, of course, ending established eye contact, say by staring elsewhere (anywhere!) gives a powerful message too – sharing is over.  At its optimum, eye contact during conversation lasts seconds and is repeated intermittently. When it is fleeting it does not work. When overlong it takes the relationship into another plane.

Some time ago I taught a student who would look anywhere other than at my face – my shoes had never been so interesting! When he was reading from his notes, or speaking with his peers, there were no problems. When we talked face-to-face in a tutorial or over a cup of tea, his eye aversion came between us. It blighted communication. It was not the communication of facts or ideas that was hampered, it was the personal environment in which we, as two sighted people, worked. The glue of our relationship was not allowed to function, so our discussion could not gel.

It was, Noel said, part of his Ghanaian culture. Because I was more senior, looking into my eyes would be disrespectful. But for me it was not looking at my eyes that was disrespectful.  Here was a clash of cultures that we both accepted and nothing more was said. However, some years later when we met in the corridor, we had eye contact and Noel smiled. He had found changing a struggle but it had brought real advantages. Now he feels much more welcomed by his teachers and that makes an important difference.

The story was rather different for Angela who was UK-born, white and very shy. She was a valued colleague for whom eye contact was impossible. We worked together but the lack of contact made our work relationship fraught, a distraction I could have done without. Whatever the cause, and there may have been many, I now realise that it was my fault that communication failed. I should have thought about my times with Gordon and accommodated. How very silly of me to have done otherwise.

Photo: Eye Movement Research Portal

One comment on “Eye to eye
  1. ian bruce says:

    Your piece has made me think. For 20 years I worked with blind people every day. Also every year for the last five I have taught mainly Xhosa and Zulu mature students in Johannesburg. What you say rings true, Joe.

    I enjoy working with blind people (remember approx 75% of registered blind people have some residual vision). I also find maintaining eye contact tiring and on occasions quite distracting, especially if the conversation is complex – so talking with totally blind people became very attractive to me, as did /do phone calls.

    In cultures where eye contact which signals superiority – well! No wonder in many foreign lands we have a reputation for arrogance!

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