Eye Contact, I Contact, iContact: The Clash Of Privacy Ideals

Last January when I first moved to Austin, my dog rudely ran up to some girl on the sidewalk and started sniffing her feet. I told her that he was getting used to living in a city. This was because I was embarrassed that he had gone up to her at all.  I was also probably indulging in one of my favorite pastimes of dog-projection.

Now, I can be standing at the traffic light next to someone for three and a half minutes and not say hi or even look them in the eye. Granted, my dog isn’t sniffing their feet, because we have been pretty much avoiding the common sidewalk; but still. I’ve got that “New York Stare” or whatever. This post has some cool citations that verify the experience that in cities, people are just less likely to look you in the eye and talk to you. It’s a commonly known and unexciting fact.

Learning About Eye Contact & What It Can Convey

Eye contact is important.

  • Sales people can use it to manipulate and influence your feelings.
  • Public speakers can use it to feel less embarrassed by anchoring to one person in the crowd at a time.
  • If you are on a date, you can use it wisely to help someone feel comfortable and at least not creep them out any further.
  • Dogs can use it to make you think they’re people.

There are endless ways of using eye contact and many benefits it can bring.

NLP, or Neuro Linguistic Programming, is something I was introduced to in a trailer in the Rockies long ago. There was a book in a free pile, and me and my friend pored over the pages by candle light trying to learn all the tricks; I never succeeded. The NLP website  has a detailed system of how to use eye contact and eye movements to learn about what someone is even thinking about.

The eyes are the doorways to the soul, someone once said. It’s not too far from true.

Sharing, Contacting, Connecting: The Current Ideal of Accessibility

In many ways, sharing and connecting with people is supposed to be cool and fun. It is encouraged. We make profiles on Facebook and WordPress, gathering friends and contacts like corn in a satchel to bring home for sustenance. We keep ourselves known, current, and available.

Today I was listening to an old Ani Difranco album and one of my favorite songs, “Cloud Blood,” came on. Here is a verse as I hear it (I lost the liner notes):

Stopped on the top of the ridge
Just to feel the wind on my Rand McNally.

I feel the air go cold
as I drift in to the first blue, blue valley
And you’re wondering how far down you are on my
call back list,
but you don’t realize
Every time I find I’m by a phone

the landscape shifts.

That verse used to be one of my favorites. I would think of the person I had a crush on and remember times of traveling through mountains and forests, unreachable until I came along a pay phone.

Now, we are all reachable. All of the time. Most of us, anyway. Anyone reading this probably is. Gone are the days of Rand McNally maps, pay phones, and actual phone numbers. Here are the days of online contacts, emails, GPS, Facebook messages and online diaries. Even when people are on some adventure far from society, we can see a new post every day on Facebook or Instagram detailing their spiritual and enlivening journey. Zillions of apps exist so that we can advertise where we work out, what we are eating, who we are with, even which games we are playing.

This is fine. I am not against this. In some ways, it helps people stay healthier and become motivated. What I do not appreciate is double standards and underlying conflicts and contradictions that make perfectly grounded and sensitive people feel as if they are going a bit nuts.

What’s the Problem?

On Facebook, we are encouraged to identify ourselves, where we’ve been, where we plan to go, who we are hanging out with, what brand we purchase, and which coupons we want to claim. (This clip of a Pete Holmes bit illustrates what I mean)

The information we share goes to thousands of people and many companies. We never have to see the people or make eye contact with them, but we advertise and share with them just the same. Even on Skype we can’t make eye contact.

This standard of share-everything doesn’t quite apply when we meet people in real life, though. In that case, the rules are generally: Don”t say hi, don’t start talking, don’t randomly ask how their day is. They’ve already told thousands of people on their mobile Facebook; they don’t need to tell you! (There’s a recent Onion article, “It’s not Okay to Just Start Talking To People You Don’t Know” that nicely displays this side of it)

The Future: A Society Of Control Freaks?

I think this is going to affect us later on more than we may realize. We are turning into control freaks. Online, I can connect without having to worry about the feeling of actual connection. My Screen/No Screen post covers this as well.

But what is happening to our real day to day experience of each other? What type of control are we becoming reliant upon in order to feel “comfortable” connecting with people?

I realize that Austin is a rather friendly city, and at certain coffee shops or parks, there are definitely more chances of starting a conversation or having eye contact. But I see other people pretty much every single time I leave my house, and usually, conversations do not happen and neither does comfortable eye contact.

Waking Up & Aiming Towards Resolving The Discrepancy

It doesn’t matter if you feel comfortable sharing every last detail about your day on Facebook or on your blog if you can’t sit next to someone on a park bench and engage in some type of connection without funneling all of your attention straight into a device; at least in my opinion.

To try and resolve this discrepancy in myself, I am going to be making more of an effort to allow those strange feelings of “connection” to arise when I am near strangers and to smile more often when I do happen to make eye contact with someone.

I realize that sometimes, this may lead to some type of creepy misunderstanding; but more often than not, it won’t. It will lead to connection; to two humans seeing each other and not turning away simply because of fear or awkwardness.

How do you feel about eye contact? Do you live in a place that has lots of friendly eye-contacty people, or do you live in a place where it doesn’t happen at all?

Does it depend on what part of town you are in, or what type of location you are in? Maybe the time of day, or the way you feel?

Do you think that our ability to talk to random people on park benches should be improved, or should it be left to whither in the dust while we all get really, really good at sharing details of our lives with faraway strangers?


20 thoughts on “Eye Contact, I Contact, iContact: The Clash Of Privacy Ideals

  1. Pingback: Too Easy To Get…? « The Chaotic Soul

  2. “dogs can use it to make you think they are people” Hahaha, I rarely laugh when reading posts, but that made me genuinely chuckle.
    I love making eye contact with people and smiling at them. I am kind of weird about it though because I practice sending them energy while doing it lol. I guess that falls under the creepy category but I almost always get very warm responses back. A few weeks ago however, there was one day where I could not get anybody to look at me. Every single person looked away when I passed by them and it felt kind of sad. It happened so many times that it felt like I was in an episode of The Twilight Zone!
    That NLP stuff is very interesting! I studied into it awhile back and saw how it is used in major news networks. THAT is some creepy stuff! Many anchors use it, especially Sean Hannity from FOX, but I think that most people use it without even knowing. It is hard to resist manipulating minds when it comes naturally. It can be used for good too though. Great post!

    • I’m glad you like it! I practice sending energy too, often to home bums that ask for money each day at the same spot. Or people in an argument, or people who look sad in some way.

      I know what you mean when it seems that everyone is on the same dissociative train; maybe something with the moon, or recent news, or the latest episode of the Bachelor, or something.. is what I figure. I tend to not watch news and read it instead, which carries its own set of manipulative tactics..but wow. It is weird to think about how much/how often our minds are toyed with each day! wow.

  3. I can’t make eye contact, I’m autistic, it hurts and I hate it, if I force it I can’t listen and people say my eyes are too intense for them, I think they are uncomfortable, I connect with people that don’t judge me because of my disability, they are rare. Most people wouldn’t judge a blind person for not making eye contact but think I’m not a good person because of it.
    I connect by listening and with my intentions, I’m quite friendly and do my best to be kind. Just because someone is not looking in your eyes it doesn’t mean they are not friendly. 🙂

    Real connection doesn’t depend on the eyes, it’s much more than that. I think caring and being able to listen are far more important.

    People assume everyone is like them and that everyone uses body language the same, so people judge others that have a different body language or don’t make eye contact as rude or cold just because that’s what would mean if that person acted the same. It annoys me.

    Eye contact is actually a cultural thing, there are societies that don’t use it, I wish everywhere was like that, people would stop judging me badly there.

    Shy and anxious people don’t use much eye contact and I think they are people that really would like to have people to talk to.

    I think it’s okay to like eye contact and okay not to like it and most times it doesn’t mean anything. 😉

    • I’m so happy you shared your perspective, you helped me to realize I was definitely not opening my mind as much as I could have while writing this!

      Haha I do agree with you that most times eye contact really doesn’t mean anything. Especially between passersby and in public.

      When I’m talking to someone who is shy in the eye contact way, I do still feel the same level of connection, because we are talking. I would love to learn more about how to connect without having such an emphasis on eye contact before talking- maybe there are people that I am missing cues about, who would otherwise enjoy talking or connecting in some way- I can see how it is a very intense thing, and for lots of people it’s just not the ideal way of communicating.

      I don’t like how I feel myself closing in being in a more populated place- but wow, I really did not think about how much I was projecting my ideas of “normal” and what eye contact really is. Thank you so, so much for sharing. I am going to open my mind more now next time I am in public and think outside my box!

  4. Great piece! Especially the idea of becoming control freaks – in a sense. I think the bottom line is ‘connection’, and those of us who are comfortable talking with strangers are the lucky ones. It helps if you’re also good at ending an unwanted conversation – e.g. with those who start talking and can’t seem to stop. I am so lucky to live in an urban neighbourhood where it’s okay to talk to strangers.
    Lots of rich thought here!

    • Thanks!
      It’s true that healthy boundaries can be awesome. I was just watching the movie “The Grey” and in the beginning, the actor is on a plane with a guy, and the guy starts to jabber away. The actor simply says “I need quiet, I’m going to put my chair back” or something like that. He was nice and to the point- simply saying “I would not like to talk right now.”
      It would be neat if we could all do that, and have healthy abilities to be open and sharing as well as honestly closed in public. It’s great that you live somewhere where it is okay to talk to people, maybe your ability to say “enough” will develop over time if you want it to!

  5. There was an anecdote I read a long time ago about a suicide note that was found by the Golden Gate Bridge (I think). The depressed guy said he was walking from his home to the bridge to jump and if even one person smiled at him on the way, he would turn back. Tragic how we have made simple personal human connection a crime.

    • Wow that’s intense! I have been trying to smile more since writing this, and trying to really actually tap into a feeling of “joy” so that my smile is genuine. Sometimes, it’s so strange. It’s like, I can’t tell what kind of day the person is having, or like Alicia said above: maybe the person really would rather not have eye contact at all. It’s a strange world; and now I’m starting to wonder about things besides eye contact that would help us get the connection we need in a way that didn’t leave so much up to assumption. It’s intense…the responses to this post have definitely got me thinking about lots of things!

      • I try an experiment once in a while which really feels lovely. When I am travelling in my car to a meeting, I imagine hugging each one I see passing by outside, without distinction. Young, old, male, female, rich, beggar… everyone. It feels so wonderful. It feels like a wonderful connection though they may never realize it!

  6. I always smile and make eye contact. As a military brat, I spent a lot of time traveling, and there are regional differences in the level of familiarity that is acceptable. Austin is by far friendlier than the mid-Atlantic, and no place has been as tough as Maine, where the only people who did acknowledge a friendly ‘hello’ were the people who looked at me like I was some crazy trespasser! 🙂 It is tougher now to make eye contact, even in the friendly places, mostly because everyone is glued to their phone. I thought I’d never be one of those people, but the drive to check my email or my text messages is almost a compulsion. My suspicion is that this is just a way station on our evolution to post-humanism (where we are either merged into machines or supplanted by our own computerized creations). I am not sure if that scares me or makes me sad, but I don’t believe that, as a species, we are that far from accepting tech into our minds that will allow us to be online without needing external devices.


    • The compulsion to check email/phone/texts etc is one I suffer with as well. Lately while walking outside I’ve just been not using the phone because I feel like it gets in the way of some of the fine work my muses are trying to do.

      I feel like maybe the technology will come full circle. We’ll either merge with the machines or be supplanted, as you say, and any merges or increases in technology could maybe lead to MORE connection between us in real time and space rather than less (unless it’s the supplanted option..then I guess, bye bye us). I’m trying to be optimistic.

      Mainly though, I’m looking forward to the self-driving cars. (http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/18/tech/innovation/ieee-2040-cars/index.html).

      • I like the optimism inherent to believing that when we are merged with technology, we will be more authentically connected than we are with our external technology. I am a writer, and I love words, but they are inherently imprecise; if we could share direct knowledge of ourselves, I think compassion would be the automatic reaction. I believe we (as a species) can be better to each other than we are.

        Self-driving cars? I would get so much done during my commute! I don’t think this will improve traffic volume any, but if it cuts down on the random fender-benders and the more horrible fatality accidents, I’m willing to give it a try.

        Thanks for another thoughtful post, the well-phrased reply, and the link to the article!


  7. Re Onion article, “It’s not Okay to Just Start Talking To People You Don’t Know” — it’s not?? Then I’m in trouble. Just came from a traditional music festival where I struck up a conversation with a lady as we waited for our funnel cakes. I think my Southern accent makes me seem less threatening, so people usually respond without running away, screaming..

    • Haha the best of us are in trouble, my friend. The best of us.

      I’m sure the lady was delighted for your conversation. I know I would be. And the funnel cake. You know, I’m not sure that I’ve ever had one. I think I shared one with someone once. Needs to happen again.

      The Onion is something I need to read more of. (They actually have it in newspaper stands here) The satire helps me to see things with fresh eyes, and see it humorously, and then I get some kind of better perspective over it. Some kind of power over my perception for just a moment, and then it makes that thing seem impossible to hold on the “this is serious” shelf for too long. I am learning to love the wisdom it can bring!

  8. Jennifer, this is such an interesting post. When I feel safe I will make eye contact with the person attempting to feel deeply into the whole individual. Sometimes with strangers –yes. But other times–no. It’s strange. My biggest problem with Facebook (in the past, before my current love affair with it) is just what you said. It feels like we don’t emotionally connect any more. I am thinking…it feels important that we allow an inner guidance to let us know when it’s safe to connect and when we should turn in the other direction with a smile.

    • I agree about the inner guidance. There are so many times when I am instinctively more shut-down than other times in certain company. It is interesting, always food for thought. Sometimes I find that I have an instinct and it turns out to be rather misplaced- like when there’s a stranger I see a lot, and I imagine their voice in my head, and then they finally speak and I realize that as soon as they do, their eyes have kindness. It can be strange! I figure, as long as I’m *sometimes* willing to be uncomfortable and eye-contacty, at least I won’t lose the ability..even if often times, I’m listening to the voice that sometimes says “don’t bother..just smile and walk away”. 🙂

  9. Hi Jennifer, this is a wonderful post. I will share a brief experience I had because it was profoundly moving and telling, 5 years ago, I was very fortunately to spend a week in the company of (with others) HH Dalai Lama. I met with him and we spoke briefly, but here’s the thing, with each person he met and spoke with, he looked directly in their eyes and talked into them. You had his full attention. He made sure you knew that. And each time he met another new person it was the same way. The eye contact. It was powerful and moving! I never forgot it. He also would grasp your hand and hold it while he and you spoke, it was personal and real. Just wanted to share this here with you. Thank you so much for a very insightful and interesting article, Penny

    • Penny, that was great to hear. I, too, had that opportunity once! We were at a big table though, so no hand-holding while we talked, but the eye contact was there so I know precisely what you mean.
      There is something so powerful about it, and I remember feeling my words just jumbling together into a jelly when I asked him a question! Trying to be that present was so beautifully uncomfortable- and to see someone be so at peace with that level of presence. Wow. I had not drawn a connection between this post and that experience, but I feel like you somehow helped me to solidify it in my mind and consciousness..perhaps that was the seed experience that is helping me realize that so often, that level of eye contact and being “seen” is just not as high as it could be. Haha, wow, I’m so incredibly glad you brought it up! That memory is now fresh and something to aspire to. Thank you!

      • Thanks Jennifer. It was your post that reminded me of him and how he makes eye contact. Like you I mumbled something back while he was sincere and warm and friendly. I guess being with greatness will do that to one. He is one of my “heros” in life, for all the obvious reasons … he is an inspiration for me also! Warm hugs to you, Penny xx

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