Crossing the great eye contact divide

2008-01-30 00:00

In some cultures looking someone in the eye is seen as being indicative of trustworthiness or respect, or lack thereof. Now, ignorance is bliss so if this is not part of your life you’re about to be educated about the drama such a seemingly trivial habit can brew.

If you are a particular type of African you know that looking a grown person in the eye is a “no-no”, while in Western culture and business etiquette lack of eye contact implies a hidden agenda and untrustworthiness.

The stress produced by these differences took a childhood to diagnose. I’m one of those children who, after having started in the “Bantu” schools, went to schools that taught Western values. It is noteworthy that I never left my community except to go to school; I would return in the afternoon. Consequently, I am somewhat of an expert on certain cultural stressors.

I learnt that you are to listen to your teachers in order to succeed and, indeed, to be socialised to the environment in which you spend most of your time awake as a child, and you also must conform to the society around you after school, the people who do not attend the same schools but share the same culture as you.

It is a balancing act of note and many times you will make embarrassing slip-ups as a child.

I learnt from a young age not to look people in the eye as it is seen as confrontational or defiant. Even as an adult you have to be careful when talking to people senior to you in any way. However, it does get complicated because not all black Africans are averse to eye contact. It could be colonial indoctrination but I certainly have some friends from across Africa who believe that making eye contact is important. When the great author and poet Maya Angelou mentioned the same issue in her book Singin’, Partyin’ And Getting Merry Like Christmas, I felt so validated I wished I had discovered her earlier.

My most recent adventure with eye contact was a few years ago, when I decided I was going to always look people directly in the eye. It is a whole new world! One of my supervisors must have thought it was very strange of me because I switched behaviours without warning. As an experience it was like watching television — I could hardly concentrate on the conversation. People are just more beautiful when you look into their eyes, but it requires an immense amount of concentration. Of course I had to remember not to look in the black South African people’s eyes.

I always seek advice before a new adventure and this was no different, but the progress report concerned my advisor on this particular occasion. I have this friend I call Dreamcatcher, who is my “class” coach. She teaches me things like how not to take it seriously when people say things like, “Oh, we should get together sometime!” I always expect a call when someone says that or I just call them myself. Apparently people like saying things like that.

She made me almost give up on the whole project when she told me, “Brian, looking at a person’s eyes for too long can be perceived as flirting!”

I look at eyes long enough to remember their colour or until I see that beauty thing and then I’m back to good old me. Being shy doesn’t help much, but what really concerns me is the fact that everyone is always looking right into my eyes when I raise them. That makes me want to say, “It’s a cultural thing. It’s not that I’m shady! I’m shy too!” Sometimes though, I forget entirely to look at people’s eyes, but never when I’m unhappy with the person. That is a natural cultural instinct I suppose and appears to be why my elders are never impressed with eye contact.

We were taught an eye-contact trick in a high school workshop for school prefects. I guess it is the “advanced stare-down”, but we were made to stare into each other’s eyes for more than 30 minutes without looking away. I looked away once and couldn’t stop giggling, but I got it right eventually. In retrospect, though, I think Dreamcatcher has a point because the prefect sitting across from me in the exercise looked like she was finding me more and more attractive.

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