‘Eye contact is, in fact, contact,’ says Professor of Sociology Gary Alan Fine, of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago.
‘You feel it. You feel eye contact.’ And it can be a wonderful and powerful thing.
But can’t we say, ‘There is eye contact, and then there is eye contact?’
Definitely. In Chicago proper, downtown near Lake Michigan, a Joliet, Illinois resident named Jeff Harrington was sitting on a planter, watching people come and go, and making occasional eye contact, until —
Until his gaze rested on an approaching stranger a couple of seconds too long. Ugh. ‘Anything,’ he says, looking back, ‘anything more than maybe [just a few] seconds is too long, when it’s a complete stranger who is walking towards you.’
There’s a ‘right way’ and a ‘wrong way’
‘Exactly right,’ says Professor of Anthropology David B. Givens of the University of Washington in Seattle. There is a ‘wrong way’ to make eye contact — such as the experience Mr. Harrington talked about — but there’s also ‘a right way.’
‘To make friendly contact,’ Professor Givens says, ‘you look at the other person’s eyes for a short time, and you lift your eyebrow.’ This is a very human way of showing interest in another person — it’s practiced all over the world — and the length of the eye contact should be short — no more than, say, 3 seconds at most.
And after you make eye contact — what then?
But enough about other people. Let us now talk about you. Being immersed in these matters until they are second nature, you are walking along the Promenade on a warm summer’s evening — casual but stylish in your attire — when an interesting face approaches. You make eye contact — but you hesitate. You don’t raise your eyebrow, the eyebrow clearly being, after all, a choice for you to make. You look away. You keep walking.
Later, you make eye contact with an old woman — she glances at you, then looks to see where she’s walking. Then you’re drawn to a teen on a skateboard — but his concern is watching where he’s going.
After a bit, however, you see a face you really like. You look at the person, eyebrow raised — and you get back a very nice smile, and a lingering look — but some part of you says no, and with a smile you look away and keep on walking.
Certainly you had an invitation to stop, perhaps, and speak to the smiling, lingering look you got back from your raised eyebrow —
What! Eye contact, but then nothing? Nothing at all? Well, there’s no story in that!
True — there’s no story in that
Let us, at this point, return to Professor Fine of Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago, for a brief ‘refresher.’
‘Eye contact,’ Professor Fine says, ‘is an invitation for conversation. For example, a woman who is looking at a guy — and it’s clear that’s what she’s doing — gives the man license to start a conversation.’
And so it is that one evening a few days later, you are walking along a path lined with antique street lamps when you notice a dark-haired beauty of 9 or 10 approaching you rather directly — which is to say, ‘head-on’ — so that unless you step aside or say something, she is going to walk right into you.
So you stop — stock still — and give her your best, most engaging ‘visual embrace,’ accompanied by raised eyebrow and a full-face smile — and she, in turn, comes to a full stop and stands there, beaming at you, eyebrows raised, chin tilted up, all smiles.
And in that moment you have been given, if ever a lady so favored you, an ‘invitation for conversation,’ per Gary Alan Fine, Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University.
And as Shakespeare put it so well (or could have): If this be ‘eye contact,’ then what, pray, shall come next?
‘Good evening,’ you say. (What came next.)
‘Good evening,’ the young lady answers, radiant.
‘I was wondering,’ you muse, ‘as I was walking along under these beautiful antique street lamps…. I was wondering if I would see anything on my walk as gracious as the black iron lace that holds the yellow globes that light this quiet path….’
And as you let your voice die away, you hold your hand out, palm up, in an unmistakable reference to the long-sleeved, full-skirt dress the young lady is wearing. ‘The dress,’ you say, ‘is stunning.’
‘You are most kind,’ the lady replies. ‘My mother chose this dress for me when we were shopping together one day about a month ago.
‘The black lace,’ the young lady agrees, ‘does resemble the iron on the old street lights, doesn’t it?’
But what she tells you next — you think at first — can have only one explanation, unlikely as it may seem: This child, too, must be a student of Professor Gary Alan Fine of Northwestern University.
‘My mother,’ the young lady volunteers, ‘requires that I display the very best manners at all times. “You must not make eye contact with gentlemen you have not been introduced to,” my mother says.
‘“But,” she adds, “I will allow one exception. If you see a gentleman you would like very much to meet, you may make eye contact, and raise your eyebrow as an expression of interest — but you must wait for the gentleman to speak first. And if he chooses not to speak, you must smile and go on your way without talking to him. But you can only do this if your mother is nearby.
‘So I hope you didn’t mind if I walked right at you', she says, 'but I felt if I invited your attention with my eyes — and then I was about to bump into you — you would have to stop and talk to me. Did you notice,’ she added, beaming, ‘that it worked?’
‘And is your mother nearby?’ you ask.
‘I ran ahead of her,’ the young lady answers, ‘but then she caught up with me and is sitting on the bench over there.’
‘Ah,’ you say, turning to acknowledge the mother with a smile and a courtly bow.
‘And let me ask you this,’ you say to the young lady. ‘Is your mother, by any chance, a professor of sociology or anthropology?’
‘But of course,’ says your new acquaintance. ‘She is my mother — and she is a professor of anthropology.’
But of course.
—Article based on news stories from the Chicago Tribune, www.chicagotribune.com, ‘In the news: Eye Contact.’ Our concluding story is wholly fictional.