They say eye contact is an important part of interpersonal relationships. No doubt about it, and when people don’t give it to you, it just doesn’t feel right. And yet there are those nice and reasonably well-adjusted people who just can’t seem to manage it. They’ll shake your hand while looking down at the floor or peer around all over the place during conversation. It can be so bad that I’ve actually turned around looking for something that might be about to pounce on my head.
“What are you looking at,” my conversational companion might ask.
“I’m trying to find whatever it is you’re looking at.”
“Oh, I’m not looking at anything.”
(Then quit darting your eyes around like your tripping on something.)
Yes, body and eye language oftentimes convey much more meaning than the spoken word. The eyes, the so-called windows to the soul, can convey trust, mistrust, truth, dishonesty, paranoia, anger, happiness, shiftlessness, con artistry, hatred, and love. If the spoken words say one thing and the body and eye language something else, I’m almost always going to go with the latter.
But not always, because as I say certain nice people just lack the proper social skills or whatever — call it excessive shyness, timidity, diffidence, perhaps even a developmental issue such as Asperger’s syndrome.
And it can go too far in the other direction. Is there anything more awkward than being with someone who just stares (unless he or she happens to be drop-dead gorgeous)? I’m not talking about a “look” per se, but a real stare — that expressionless, monotonous stare right into your face, interminable, penetrating, withering. The kind of stare that makes one search for any and all possible excuses to end a conversation.
Then again, perhaps it reveals something about ourselves when we get stared at like that. Years ago Andy Warhol conducted a series of film “portraits” in which he’d have subjects just sit and be filmed for a half-hour or so. Most sat there and smoked or fidgeted; others melted under the glare of the camera and literally broke out in a cold sweat.
I got to thinking about this now that Garrison Keillor has officially recorded his last “A Prairie Home Companion” show. Keillor is not only talented but a conundrum. Here’s a guy described in a recent New York Times arts review column as a looming “melancholy presence,” introverted in private, who makes poor eye contact (as alluded to by Keillor himself during a one-man show at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center last year).
“His gaze is often floating and takes you in from a strange distance,” the article quoted the writer and editor Roger Angell as saying. “He is certainly the strangest person I know.”
“Garrison in person is quite different,” the article further quoted his longtime friend and writer Mark Singer. “Garrison does not express emotion in interpersonal conversations the way the rest of us do.”
And still this very shy man was and is still able to get up in front of an audience, assume an affable and garrulous persona and entertain audience members with lighthearted, but also dark, complex, poignant and emotionally charged humor.
Keillor would therefore apparently fall under the category of “other” when it comes to interpersonal business, eye contact and so forth — an exception to the rule. You just have to accept him for whom he is and understand that if he looks right at you, something must be terribly wrong. On stage he apparently morphs into something entirely different that people can relate to, and it certainly carries well over the airwaves. And he is more or less retiring as an acclaimed individual in the world of broadcasting.
In the end, it’s probably good policy just to be truthful. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends (as Mark Twain said.) Because for most of us the eyes are going to be telling the real story anyway.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@ comcast.net.