Not perhaps normal as a topic, but something unique to me.
In the States you’re expected to be very direct when speaking to people. Blunt, direct, look them in the eyes. Be sharp and strong-willed, determined and show no fear. Be bold and be the one in control. Really, eye-contact is aggression in interaction between people in the workplace, in school, in social interactions. Of course, that is only my opinion, and I suppose, it would take a bit of explanation into my history and family relationship growing up to fully understand why I say that. I’m sure most people reading this are protesting my saying that as a blanket statement of all interactions between people. Because I mean my statement for all interactions, not just some.
But that is my experience and my personal opinion.
Eye-contact is aggression and dominance.
I hate making eye-contact with anyone. Not even my own family actually sees my eyes when I’m speaking with them. Not even the people I’ve known my whole life have seen my eyes for more than a few scant seconds at a time when conversing with me. And when they see my eyes, it is always at side angles and brief glances. The simple fact is that I cannot look even my own family in the eyes when I talk to them, those people that I’ve known the longest. My mom, perhaps the person I trust most in my life, doesn’t even see my eyes when I talk with her. With her I’ve learned to at least bring my gaze to within two feet of her general person (two feet over her head, or at her feet). But the rest of my family, I still cannot look any closer than five feet near to them while speaking.
I don’t do it as some sort of power struggle. I don’t do it as some sort of sign of defiance or to cause problems. I literally cannot look at people when I speak with them. Even the professors at my university that I’m closest to, that I’ve worked longest with for my 2 degrees over these last 4 years, they have not even been able to break me of this. I lost major points on my 1st degree presentation this last fall for German language due to this, because during my Capstone public presentation I could not look at my audience while talking. I still, even after working for months on trying to look more towards people, could only bring myself to look at the top of the projector on the ceiling (which was 10 feet in front of my audience and a good 8 feet above their seated heads). My professor, and head of my department, had to dock major points, because “relating to the audience”, i.e. “eye-contact”, is a major part of the presentation, and I scored 0 points on that. She was kind enough, because I had been working with her on it for months, but she had to be fair on the grading, and the fair thing was, I failed to make any actual visual contact.
The honest fact is, since I was little, I’ve never been able to make eye-contact with anyone speaking with me. And it was never for lack of confidence. I was a pretty confident little kid, until I was a bit older. 5-year-old me was pretty confident, and I didn’t look anyone in the eyes. 10-year-old me was not confident at all (we moved across state, uprooting my whole life), but it wasn’t a new development in my speaking habits or behavior. 15-year-old me in high school had never been doing it, and really, why bother listening to a high school teacher who told me to, when he was part of the problem, letting his pet group of favorites bother me in class all the time? By the time I hit university, I’d been this way my whole life. What was there to change? I really just can’t look people in the eyes.
There’s a lot in my past to help explain why I said what I said back at the beginning. A small part is just that I’ve always been that way. And I hate changing my personality and mannerisms to suit the world around me if it works. After all, I don’t hurt anyone, and I get exceptional results on projects and presentations, so what harm has it done? Even with my 0-points on the “eye-contact” part, I still received over 90 points on my full presentation. That’s astounding as an accomplishment.
The other part to my statement, the major part, is in the verbal and emotional abuse I suffered through during middle and high school, up until this last year. I finally managed to separate myself from toxic elements and put up a block to get myself fully out and begin healing. Worst part — it took me until only about 3 months ago to actually realize that I really had been abused all those years. I’d spent years not realizing what I had gone through, because I had never been hit. That’s the worst part, not realizing, trying to rationalize what I went through, trying to minimize it all. But, it’s done a lot of damage. A huge result of that is the fact that I cannot help but associate anyone forcing me to make eye-contact with them as aggression. Because that was one of the key things that would happen before screaming rants and emotionally abusive tirades I was forced to go through during high school. So I will admit, I have a gut reaction against eye-contact.
For me, eye-contact is a powerful thing, something I hate. And its something I refuse to subject myself to. I don’t like being forced to do anything anymore, not since I’ve finally begun to enforce limits and boundaries for my own health. And this is one thing that society likes to insist everyone must follow. And it happens to be one of the few things that happens to throw me right back into the hellacious experiences that I was living through almost immediately. So eye-contact is nasty associations for me, something that causes me to freak out and actually get rather nervous.
I don’t panic, I don’t completely lose it. I just, can’t do it.
It’s two-fold. I never have done eye-contact. It never was part of my habits and behavioral makeup. But then…after everything was all said and done, I can’t help but associate it with things that are not exactly the most pleasant of memories for me. So then, I don’t want to do it either.
But of course, here in the States – if you don’t look a person in the eyes while speaking, you’re a liar. And, I discovered pretty quickly, as a pagan, I’m both a liar for this particular quirk of mine, and a hateful person. Which is pretty awful to learn. I had a friend tell me, “God says that witches are deceivers” and that since I “refuse to look [them] in the eyes, [I’m] lying, and therefore can’t be trusted with anything.” All of this was rather impressive, considering it was out of nowhere.
Now, I suppose I should cut said friend some slack for not knowing what happened to me with my private life and the abuse I was going through. After all, my closest friends in high school (minus 1) had no clue what was going on at my home, and quite a few of them even visited my home. But, no. I really don’t need to cut said friend some slack. Not knowing what I went through is no reason to be insensitive and an asshole in commentary about something. And also, because this friend had no real problem with my “eye-contact issue” (as they termed it) before they realized I wasn’t Christian. After all, before this “revelation”, said friend was just willing to joke about my being averse to eye-contact because I might be “afraid people might know too much about [my] soul”. But once they found out I wasn’t a “good Christian” and didn’t go to church every Sunday, then, boom, change of attitude and now I’m untrustworthy and a liar about everything. So, insensitivity and all the rest.
And the expectation in the States does hold.
If you don’t look people in the eyes while speaking, you’re lying. That’s fact, or so everyone assumes. If you can’t stare someone down, you’re lying. Or at least omitting. Which is, as my sister always tells me, “lying by omission”, and just as great a sin. She’s big on that being lying too. So, to the minds of Americans of States-side persuasion, if you cannot be aggressive and constantly boorish by staring someone down in the face at all times – then therefore you’re untrustworthy, a liar, hiding something or everything…unworthy of confidence, etc etc. Which is something I’ve never understood.
In Germany there was a time and place for eye-contact. It was problematic for me there at times too, that I couldn’t make eye-contact, but not the same way that it is here. There was no accusatory presumption that I was a liar if I didn’t make constant eye-contact in Germany. My experience was that there are Germans who are much more forward with eye-contact, and Germans who do not make it nearly as much. I also learned that some of the cultures neighboring German culture are not known for making eye-contact either. So Germans do not just jump to the presumption of guilt of lying if people do not constantly stare each other down. They were, in my experience, far more used to dealing with other cultures. They did not seem too concerned with judging other people for minor issues of behavior that did not affect daily life, as opposed to in American culture, where every tiny detail is picked apart and judged, critiqued and harangued upon until it is all pushed into line.
The best example I have is that on public transit here in the States I’ve noted that people stare and bother each other. Especially stare, they stare and seem to have to know and bother about what each person is doing. On the Straßenbahn (street-cars is a rough translation, kind of like the street cars down in San Francisco, only they actually have a full-fledged system of them, and they’re modern) in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germans leave each other alone. They don’t stare at each other, they don’t bother with what other people are doing. They leave other passengers alone. It’s a foreign concept to Americans I think, to not be constantly in each others business. To not be constantly picking at each other. But it was something I noted in my time in Germany. My Mitbewohner (flatmates) didn’t constantly pick at each other. We were all friendly, but we were all left alone to do as we pleased. Not bothered, not constantly spied on, critiqued, picked apart behind each others backs. Not constantly being ridiculed like how all my American acquaintances constantly do to each other back here in the States.
The cultures aren’t the same. I know that. But the eye-contact. That was what struck me most, as most symbolic of it all. Germans did not bother me about it. They would ask me if I was shy. I usually explained that I was, and I was sorry if it was unusual to them (it is true that I am shy, I am very shy). That ended their interest in my lack of eye-contact, if they even commented on it at all. I think I had, in my year in Germany and in my multiple friendships and many conversations about cultural customs and discussions, only 10 people ask me about why I wouldn’t look them in the eye. Compare that to the 50+ familiar people a year in the States, who will bother me multiple times, sometimes 3+ years in a row, or will bother me 5+ times a year about it. And there’s a huge difference in cultures there too. Americans are blatantly rude about it, constantly pushing, even when it has been made clear the subject is off-limits or no longer open for discussion. They don’t have a sense of boundaries.
Eye-contact is for me about boundaries. Mine were crossed too many times as a teenager. I never did get a real childhood. I suppose this whole comparison of mine is just my way of dealing with my frustrations on the whole issue. American cultural customs of dealing with the situation have always been rather upsetting for me. Because, to be honest, there is an American sense of entitlement to the answers, to know every reason why someone is the way they are. And the reason I am the way I am about eye-contact is not something I’ll share with just anyone that I know. It’s too personal, it stems too deep, it’s too hurtful to share. And eye-contact is just the manifestation, the thing that reared its head to scream “look at me”. My reasons are my own, and someone’s sense of entitlement is not my issue. My issues are my own.∗