Riddle this: What’s super awkward if it happens on a tube, exciting if it’s with a hot guy in a bar, a necessary prerequisite to ordering food in a restaurant? The dreaded eye contact!
Eye contact is undoubtedly very powerful – and not just if you’re Sauron. It can be delightful if shared with a loved one, cementing intimacy and provoking sympathy. In Arthur Aron’s famous psychological study, participating couples ask each other probing questions and follow up with four minutes of uninterrupted eye contact; one couple, previously strangers, were married within six months. Amnesty International recently staged a similar refugee-related social experiment based on the same study:
When you lock into a retina-to-retina with another person, you observe them and they observe you (I eye you eyeing me). You know they are observing you and vice versa. You know they know you’re observing them. You know that they know that you know they’re observing you. So you’re establishing a reciprocal and exclusive channel of communication, based upon mutual observation – which in many cases feels like a perilously vulnerable endeavour.
It’s the being observed part, and the being observed to be observing part, that we don’t like. When we are not just seen but intentionally focussed upon, there is always the possibility that the other person may discover something about ourselves that we do not like, or do not want others to find out about. But it’s not just a question of our own feelings about ourselves. Even those with the most balanced sense of self-worth may feel uncomfortable under the prolonged gaze of a stranger, less because they are worried to be seen for who they are, but because they are concerned about the interpretation that will be applied to the ‘they/them’ (grammatical subject vs object) that appears in the other person’s mind, their critical reception. Not everyone will see us through a clear lens, and even those who do may not judge us and our faults kindly, so our instinctive reaction is to drop our eyes and retreat before an unfriendly gaze. This is known as shame. As Marc Barnes says:
Shame is concerned with the truth. The shaming gaze is one which does not see the truth of the whole person, but limits her to a fixed type, a part. We can feel shame over being seen as a “war hero,” and blush violently whenever some one brings it up, not because we are being criticized, or seen in any kind of negative light, but because we are not being seen in truth. The truth of our selves is so much more — and so much messier — than “war-hero.” […] Shame is an amazing thing, an incredibly useful emotion, a protective feeling that leaps into action whenever we sense an aspect of our person being seen at the expense of the whole. – source
(Bonus relevant post from same author.)
So when we retreat before, for example, the gaze of our adoring public, or the drool of some lech in da club (where, perhaps, the act of staring is being deliberately used to wrongfoot), it’s because we’re worried about how truthfully we will subsequently appear in the mind of the other – and not just on account of our own insecurities.
On the other hand, where we are sure of a favourable hearing, holding eye contact is not a problem, because with people that we know, and who know and love us well, we know that we are seen, known for who we are (not filtered/idealised/misunderstood), and not judged for it. Knowing and accepting another person is one of the few things, I feel, that can be conveyed without words – provided it’s accompanied by other appropriate body language (e.g. a sympathetic smile rather than a frown or leer). This is why the near mise-en-abyme of ties upon ties that eye contact generates between two humans creates such a powerful channel that it causes us either to fall in love or to recoil blushing.
Yet being observed (being an object in another person’s mind) is not the only thing going on – unless, possibly, you’re a female character in a film written by unsympathetic men (cfr ‘male gaze’). Sartre gives us some ideas in Huis clos (No Exit or in my preferred translation Behind Closed Doors), where one character uses another’s eyeballs as substitute for a mirror while applying her makeup, implying that the eyes are not a clear glass window into mutual knowledge but an opaque mirror reflecting ourselves back to ourselves, the metaphor of our self-definition according to others’ perception of us. Yet I don’t think you have to subscribe to the idea that we are unable to have knowledge of things outside ourselves for this to make sense. Perhaps it is only a Narcissus who is incapable of moving beyond that first step of seeing oneself as an object in one’s own mind to what’s really beyond: the other person’s retina, or the riverbed, as the case may be.
I would like to think instead that the interaction is mutual; you are being observed, but you are also observing the other. Note that not all sensory organs are bidirectional in this way; for example, you can overhear someone without them knowing that they’ve overheard, and this sort of mismatch provides the drama for a good many plays – e.g. a hidden Othello overhearing Cassio talking about a prostitute and thinking he refers to wifey Desdemona – cue some tragedy. Instead, use of the eye not only reveals the world and other people to us, but also reveals ourselves to other observing agents, in that by following our gaze they can discover the direction of our attention (particularly when it is directed at them). For example, near the end of North and South (BBC version), Mr Thornton very nearly hinges all his hopes of reciprocated love on whether or not Margaret looks back at him from her retreating carriage (tbf it was snowing so what did he expect).
So this is the second half of what makes accidental eye contact so awkward; when we are caught looking at someone, we betray our interest in them, which makes us vulnerable, whereas we would prefer to be in control. Yet given the importance of eye contact in building reciprocal human relationships, awkward accidental eye contact may just be an unfortunate byproduct we have to deal with.
The wish to control how we are seen – our representation in the mind of the other – is surely attested to by the rise of the Instagram filtered selfie and similar phenomena. Becoming an adult means becoming conscious that ours is not the only mind that exists and becoming conscious of ourselves as objects in others’ subjectivity. Hence perhaps selfies are popular with new adults; and hence so many teenagers awkwardly avoid one’s eye. We don’t want to be objects, though – we want to be subjects. Looking back proclaims intentionality and agency, proclaims that you too have a mind (are a human!) that sees, directs attention and creates mental objects of its own. We are content to be objects only if we know that our representation is as close to our true self, and as kindly received, as possible. Publicised selfies scatter the self by making it an object in the unfamiliar eyes of those who do not know and love us – and who cannot, because the gaze is unreciprocal. Perhaps the less photographed life is better, because it forces us to be seen only when we have a good chance of looking back – that is, in person – and thus keeps subject and object, and the mutuality of our relationships, in balance.
I think there is a moral to the story. When it comes to eye contact, more is clearly more. The weird guy who leers at you in the street needs to know that you are not just a hot bod. So make him aware of it: stare back (and tell him his mother would be ashamed of him). To maintain good relationships, we need to continue to see the other for who they are: a real person deserving of love. This means not avoiding their eye when we are annoyed at them and stubbornly want to persist in our irritation rather than allowing ourselves to forgive them. To build good relationships (which clearly the world needs more of), we have to be willing to be vulnerable, which could mean not necessarily looking away when we lock eyes with a Rush Hour Crush on the Jubilee line.
Mandy Len Catron tried out Aron’s study during a real-life date. Lo and behold, it propelled her towards falling in love with her partner. So in the most roundabout way, and in her words, the moral of the story is that ‘it’s possible — simple, even — to generate trust and intimacy, the feelings love needs to thrive’. Now later on, she casts doubt on the hype that followed her original article, which claimed the experiment was a magic guarantee of lasting love. It obviously isn’t; as she says, love is a choice. However, it’s a choice that boils down to that first will to allow yourself to be enveloped in a spiral of mutual vulnerability and acceptance. Hope for a better world is not an ‘optical’ illusion.