Eye Contact

June 11, 2008 - Atlanta, Georgia, United States

As I sit here on a plan above some random point between Atlanta and Chicago, I was struck by the strength of the connection that can be shared in a look.  

The flight attendants had parked their drink cart in front of me while one served the four rows in front of me and another served my row and the three behind me.  They would walk to a row, take orders, pour at the cart, and then deliver the drinks and repeat.  A number of times I looked up to see them sharing a very significant look.  They were so heavy with implied speech I felt I could almost read their minds.  (Note to self:  test this out… maybe you can read minds and you just haven’t realized it yet!).  I thought I knew exactly what one would have said to the other if they were alone and not ‘on stage,’ and what the other would have responded.  

Once one of them got diverted, right before they started pouring, by a soothing ‘ding’ on the overhead speaker.  She went to go help whoever had pushed their call button, came back and said in a flat and neutral matter-of-fact way, ‘he was playing with his button,’ and shot a glance at her colleague.  They held it for exactly one extremely significant second.  

There were 3 or 4 times when they would connect mid-pour to convey some secret message, and every time I could feel the unspoken words flying between them.

Another one was after a man asked if he could have the whole can of soda.  The attendant most politely and reasonably responded that because this was a there-and-back flight, and they wouldn’t be restocking in Chicago, she couldn’t.  Then she walked back to the cart and they shared another of their moments, with just the tiniest hint of tightening around their eyes indicating a deeply hidden smile.  There was more to that story.

I found it fascinating to watch them for those few minutes that it took them to pour 16 drinks.  They kept looking at each other without speaking.  I knew that some of it was professional and some personal.  I wondered how long they have known each other, how frequently they work a flight together, and how long it takes to develop that kind of relationship.  

When I was getting off the flight, I mentioned to one of them that I had noticed them communicating non-verbally a lot, and asked how long they had known each other.  She made the comment that sometimes it takes just a few days, but that they had known each other for about a year.  

Then I started thinking more about ocular communication.  I wondered if they really were smiling about the exact same thing.  Can people communicate that way?  Or do they just think they can, and they are really having two separate optical discussions.  

I’ve been experiencing non-verbal communication more saliently lately, because I have a new colleague who is deaf.  It is the first time I have had a lot of one-on-one contact with a deaf person, so it has been an incredibly valuable learning experience for me, in addition to being a really valuable experience because I very much enjoy his company.  

I feel like it is a particularly interesting time to be getting to know him because about a month ago he got cochlear implants.  They are amazing little devices which get implanted directly into his skull and intertwined into his inner ear that will, over time, allow him to hear significantly for the first time in many years.  He is truly a cyborg, part human, part machine.  It will take months and many tuning trips to the audiologist to realize the full potential of the devices.  The really interesting part is when he talks and blogs about his experiences.  He basically has to train his brain to hear, having not heard much of anything for decades.  For example, the sound of me typing this right now, would be baffling to him if he were sitting next to me and didn’t know what was going on.  Same goes for raindrops, paper rustling, you name it, it is like he is hearing it for the first time.  Even his keys jingling in his pockets took him a while to figure out why some strange sound kept following him and stopping every time he stopped walking.

The part that involves me is this:  Steven is amazingly adept at reading lips, so we are fairly easily able to communicate that way.  But we also spend a lot of time chatting online, even though we sit directly across from each other.  When we are chatting, every line or two we will pause after having given the other a chance to read what we typed.  Then we will look up at each other to convey the true meaning behind the words with our eyes and faces.  Type type type… look.  By adding that layer of communication to the typed words, it makes the communication much much richer, because you don’t lose the human connection.  The looks of incredulousness, the tiny smiles around the eyes, the genuine lol moments.  

Of course, Rachel and I also use our eyes to share moments, but since we have had a lot of practice, we have a lot more bandwidth, and can convey much more information, much more accurately, in much less time.  All it takes is the slightest instant of eye contact in a ridiculous situation to know what the other is thinking.  We know that the other person would be looking at whatever is going on, except that they want to make eye contact with you to let you know that they too noticed the ridiculous thing going on.  The very fact that our eyes meet is instantaneous two-way communication.  It is like speaking and listening at the same time.  I wonder (and please respond with comments if you think of any) if there are other situations where a two signals can be sent and the mere fact of making the connection means that the signal is received, understood, and seconded.  Huh.

I guess as I am thinking about these things it isn’t purely eye contact that is the communicator, but the whole face (although not in the case above).  We can share an amazing amount of information in a look, because we know each other so deeply.  We know what the each of us might be thinking about a given situation, and what the other’s response would be, and what the other’s response to that would be… We understand without saying them the other’s objections, interjections, ideas and solutions, so we can come to an agreement without any words at all.

An eye conversation might go something like this:
-What do you think about X?
--Not a bad idea, but what about Y?
-Yeah, I thought of that too, I think Z is more important.  You?
--Yeah, me too.  Lets do X.
-OK.

And it doesn’t go unnoticed by us.  Whenever we are in a situation where we prefer to have our conversation in private, and we flick our eyes towards each other for an instant and then I respond to whoever is waiting, I can’t help but smile.

I do think it is a matter of bandwidth.  I think the more time you spend with someone, both physically and emotionally, the more information you can convey in a shorter time.  The pipe (or fiber-optic cable these days) connecting your eyes gets thicker.

Another interesting thing is the variety of emotions that can be conveyed, even by strangers, without using words.  Love, hate, sympathy, humor, anger… and most things are not simply binary.  Of course yes and no are easy, but all of the rest of them are really on a continuum of emotions where there is not only a direction but also a magnitude conveyed.  

Something tells me in my next life I am going to be a psych researcher.

Given all this, it makes me think again about the old ‘love at first sight.’  I’ve always thought it sounded nice in a fairy tale, but wasn’t very practical.  But if it is really possible to share so much information so quickly through our eyes, why couldn’t some people really convey mutual love the first time their eyes meet?  I think it is probably overused, but I think it is plausible that it happens from time to time.  

Of course, it is difficult to convey with your eyes if one person wants 8 children and the other can’t stand kids… so good luck!



For some writing that is much more interesting than mine, please check out my new friend’s blog posts about his experiences learning to hear:  http://loremwhoopsem.blogspot.com/

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