Eye contact is a lost art

Deana Johnson Contributing columnist

February 10, 2014

I am an avid observer of nonverbal communication. I am fascinated by people’s expressions, reactions, and gestures. When I was an undergraduate communications major, my professors drilled into me that eye contact was the secret to success. Effective eye contact was the most important technique to master public speaking, the key to small group interactions, the hallmark of interpersonal communication, and above all, the way to land the job in an interview. Professors in those days demanded eye contact as a way to measure class participation. An eager college student, I sat on the front row in every class. Whether the instructors refused to move from the lectern or circumnavigated the room, my eyes — and ears, but that’s not my topic — were trained on them. For any who teach, as I do, it is clear that this is no longer the case. Students constantly look down at cell phones while in class and even when walking across campus.

Recently, a student of mine stopped by to request a letter of recommendation. During most of our conversation, she stared at her phone and continued to text as she talked with me. I should add that this person is generally a very conscientious student. She probably did not realize that there was anything inappropriate or unusual about her behavior. But, I’m not writing to complain about students. Instead, I am concerned about the state of communication in our society and the fact that eye contact is becoming a lost art.

Students are certainly not the only offenders. When I attend conferences and seminars at which famous authors and nationally-recognized speakers present, I glance around to see an audience with heads down as they tap out texts or check messages. Upon closer examination, I watch audience members scan everything from the morning news to sports scores to the latest fashions. If there is any eye contact at all, it occurs only when their eyes dart to the speaker then back to phone or device every few seconds. In meetings, colleagues focus on iPhones, iPads, or iSomething or others, although the real focus is on I (the first-person pronoun) rather than paying attention to the person conducting the meeting.

In fact, everywhere I look I seem to be met, not with eyes or faces, but the tops of people’s heads. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the crest of the human skull is not the most attractive first impression. Depending on the hairstyle, or lack thereof, the interaction may become even more challenging. After all, it’s hard to concentrate on meaningful communication when I am forced to focus on an inept comb-over, botched bangs, or multicolored roots.

I wonder if we need a new line of jewelry designed especially for the top of the head. I realize that tiaras are widely available, but not everyone favors the princess motif. Hats also make fashion statements, but they will need a redesign to perch just above the forehead with much more decorative crowns if that is the only part to be viewed. Better yet, perhaps we need a mask of sorts, a lifelike reproduction of the individual’s face, complete with eyes that really blink and a smile/frown mechanism that can be adjusted as needed.

If eyes are the “windows to the soul” then we are left without much of a view. I want to talk to people and have them listen to me with their ears and eyes. I want to witness a reassuring nod, an empathetic look, and a genuine smile. I want to see eyes flashing with passion, laughing with humor, and softening with compassion. Even expressions of anger or exasperation would be preferable to none at all. In a society that is always staring at the newest and fastest technology, we often don’t even glimpse the person in front of us. So please come in, sit down, and with nothing in hand, but much in heart, look me in the eye.

Deana Johnson lives in Laurinburg.