I'll Take A Physical Challenge: Making Eye Contact With Everyone I Meet

I've been freaking people out for almost three days now.
Publish date:
January 29, 2013
eye contact

I've been freaking people out for almost three days now.

Not even in the usual way. My inability to CONTROL THE VOLUME OF MY VOICE and my faulty internal censor haven't even come into play. It's all in the eyes, baby. I've been making DIRECT EYE CONTACT with everybody I meet.

These have been my rules:

  1. When words are exchanged, direct eye contact must be made.
  2. When another person is talking, I must maintain eye contact.
  3. When they are talking to me, I must maintain eye contact.
  4. I can only break eye contact during our exchange if I am getting or using a "prop" in which to enhance said exchange. Ex: my wallet, dog food, signing a credit card receipt, aligning food to enter my mouth, etc.
  5. Eye contact can only be broken when the interaction has reached a mutually consensual, reasonable end.

Why am I inflicting this upon the general Honolulu population?

"You don't really look at people, Louise. People like it when you maintain eye contact with them. It makes them feel like you're being attentive and connecting with them. Plus it makes you a better listener. You should try it, it's empowering." (Can we all just agree that the word "empowering" is way overused? Thank you.)

Anyway, a friend told me this the other day. I was complaining, as usual, about how life isn't fair and woe is me, and why doesn't anybody take me seriously, and why can't I eat gluten, and blah blah blah. So she suggested that I take this Eye Contact Challenge to become more "comfortable with myself and others." Speaking of eyes, I can't stop rolling mine as I'm writing her words.

Yeah, yeah, I know eye contact is important. But really, am I going to be a more empathetic or sympathetic if I stare into your eyes?

So I blew it off. I hate looking at people in their eyeballs for too long, especially people I don't know very well. It always makes me feel like they think I'm trying to sleep with them, like, right then and there. A concerted effort to make eye contact is pretty intimate, so "connecting" via eye-juju with the 16-year-old barista at the Coffee Bean makes me feel pervy.

But then I started paying attention to myself. I noticed that when I talk to people, my natural tendency is to look over their shoulder or pick at my cuticles or look absolutely anywhere but at their face. Sure, I'll start the conversation with eye contact, but once we're committed to talking with each other, I find myself only briefly looking at them, then my eyes go skipping around the room looking for something else I can justify focusing on -- anything except the other person's eyes or face.

Hypocritically, I'm the first person who will get all up in your shit if you start playing Angry Birds or doing your taxes while we're talking. My husband regularly gets to argue with me over such topics as, "Are you listening to me? What are you looking at?" and, "Am I boring you? Why does your face look like that? Are you watching television over my shoulder?"

And now I realize that I do the exact same thing. Damnit.

So, fine, I begrudgingly took on this challenge to see if by consciously making direct eye contact with the big wide world I would improve not only my quality of life, but myself, as a human person. Maybe I would indeed be "empowered"?

I think I mostly succeeded in exhausting myself and making others uncomfortable. There is a certain way to make eye contact, an ease that I don't think I possess. I mostly ended up staring at people while they wondered if I was trying to hypnotize them.

I started off simply enough, running errands around town -- Target, coffee shop, bookstore. This was for the most part easy, as most retail and food service transactions are brief, and employees are expected to be friendly. Eye contact is part of the deal. The first time I started veering off into creepy territory was when I went to the movies that night.

As I made my way to the front of the snack line, I mentally prepared myself to make eye contact with the teenager behind the counter. I found, in this experiment, that I had to spend a moment preparing how I am going to make eye contact with a person -- locking eyes on a person and gliding forward is serial killer territory. But if I give them a chance to catch my eye, then maintain eye contact, it is a little less intimidating. For both of us.

When I reached the front of the line, the snack counter worker sort of half-smiled at me, and asked me what I wanted. I tried to look pleasant as I caught his eye and ordered my Strawberry Slurpee.

As one of the other workers retrieved my Slurpee, I maintained friendly eye contact as he asked me if there was anything else I wanted, told me my cash total and gave me my drink and change. It was so false and so forced, but I was determined to look him in the eye for every verbal exchange.

By the time he said, "Enjoy your movie," his eyes were darting down and to the right, away from my maniacal gaze and I get the distinct impression that he expected to find me, mouth stained red from Slurpee, waiting for him after his shift ended that night.

This was my first experience with uncomfortable eye contact from another person. It almost felt like bullying.

My experiment gained new levels the next day at work.

When working in retail I'm confronted with two basic kinds of people: people I work with (friends for all intents and purposes) and customers (both regulars and new).

I had the most trepidation while chatting with my co-worker, because we would be stuck together for eight solid hours. However, I did feel like I was actually listening harder, as she told me stories about the goings on in her life, even if I did catch my eyes glazing over now and then. Blinking was a relief.

Interestingly enough, my co-worker stayed with me and didn't seem put off by my rapt attention.

It got weirder with my customers. It felt smothering to lock eyes with them while discussing kibble and grooming products. Too intimate, like I was hitting on them. At times I felt myself going on autopilot with eye contact maintained, and the crazy serial killer look would creep onto my face.

People either politely stayed with me, and I was able to really gauge their responses to what I was saying like never before, or, like my movie theater victim, they would look down or away and find a reason to touch something or play with their clothes.

I have to admit, I did feel as if I was connecting more often than I usually do, and that people were generally nicer to me. But again, I felt as if I was coercing them or guilting them into a connection rather than letting it happen. Perhaps it's the culture; Hawaiians are generally polite, passive folks. If I were in L.A., I might get more overt avoidance or even some aggression, like a dog challenging another dog to pee on his grass.

A friend told me about "Talking the Winner's Way" by Leil Lowndes. I read some excerpts and looked into the author online, and found that she talks about using "Sticky Eyes" or "Epoxy Eyes" to influence people and communicate confidence on your part.

My friend has been rather successful employing her methods. She says that by keeping eye contact a little longer than is comfortable, it forces people to people to make a connection with you.

Or it freaks the shit out of them and they use their eyes to search for the nearest weapon.

Either way, I'm glad my little social experiment is over. I think I'm supposed to feel powerful or in charge or something, but instead I feel even more self-involved, if that's possible.

I do think there's something to this whole eye contact thing -- forcing yourself to listen harder, be confident, unafraid, bold. So do it. I dare you. Take the challenge. You'll learn something about yourself, or at least give the cashier at Walgreen's a few sleepless nights.