“Have you been there recently?”B. asked me in the course of a meandering catch-up conversation. I hadn’t. It was a café she’d visited the week before and she was remarking that, although it had one of the most amazing views in town, the staff were unfriendly to the point of her being put off ever going back. It didn’t sound like the place I knew. I went in the next day. It was quiet. There were two young men working behind the counter. One took my order; he moved efficiently making a coffee, plating a scone. He informed me of how much it cost, took my money and gave me my change. All this he managed without making any eye contact. I now knew what B. meant. It was impersonal and disconcerting; it made me feel isolated, frozen out, invisible. It felt like there was more interaction in accessing cash from an ATM! Not that I felt like a hindrance to him; I felt very much part of his job, but he had rendered himself into an automaton. His were robotic actions, mechanically serving customers and not people.
Eye contact doesn’t need to be long and lingering and sultry – that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m all for basic eye contact that says: I’m here, you’re there, hello! It is a deeply important and fundamental form of communication. It links us together before speech. The first way in which a baby will communicate will be through its eyes and, on our last moments on earth, one of the final ways we’re likely to communicate is through our eyes. I understand that some people may have acute shyness, or live with a social condition that makes it difficult for them to hold any form of eye contact, but I suspect my barista was not one of them. He had switched off to the world. He had forgotten (or maybe had yet to learn) that it is as important to acknowledge his customer, as it is to make them coffee. And when those small moments of natural interaction begin to haemorrhage, life is impoverished.
This example, in my experience, is the exception. Most of us are not afraid to make eye contact: fleeting looks, nods, subtle movements of the eyes that extend a welcome, or that irrefutably glower and say, ‘don’t you dare’. I was on a flight on Wednesday night, I was last to board, and the engines had started up, so it was noisy. The man across the aisle looked at me, looked down at my bag. I opened my eyes wide, gave a small nod and he understood me: yes please, I would love you to lift my bag into the locker. Another quick look of thanks and we were done. It made me feel that all was right with the world. The next day the lady on the Sainsbury’s checkout, after asking if I needed a bag, enquired as to how long it took to make my hair into a fishtail. She looked at the plait hanging over my left shoulder, and then back to my eyes. “Three minutes, YouTube will teach you,” I told her. Shopping is easier with a bit of a chat.
‘Shifty’: that’s always been the description for someone who can’t look you in the eye. Body language experts say that not being able to hold someone’s eye when speaking can be an admission of guilt. Yet, apparently holding eye contact for too long can also be a cue to deception. We can overdo it. There is a theory that the deceiver goes the extra mile to try to convince you of his or her veracity and so over-eggs eye contact in order to appear truthful. It can also be the most effective (and cruel) way of making someone feel left out of a group, a meeting, or a social situation: not to catch their eye. Another crushing experience is being in someone’s company, but their eyes are darting elsewhere. I once met a TD I knew (an elected member of the Irish Parliament) at an event in Belfast. Our acquaintance went back 20 years before he was a TD. Back then he was wild, always up for the craic. He’d changed. He spent every second of our brief conversation scanning the room on a mission to work out where the important people were. For the duration of our short conversation he did not make eye contact with me once. I was more than happy for him to work the room – I didn’t want to commandeer his time, but his inability to be present with me for a just few minutes shocked me. “When Irish eyes are smiling / Sure, ’tis like the morn in Spring / In the lilt of Irish laughter / You can hear the angels sing.” There were no angels singing through this fella’s eyes. Sometimes there will be genuine demands on your time, and you may have to see and speak to other people, but when you stop to speak with someone try be present: speak to them, make eye contact, be there, and then rush on if you need to – but please, hold their eye, if only for a moment.
Today’s mission: go out and catch someone’s eye, and, if you’re lucky, you never know who might catch yours!