The Eyes Have It


What are YOU lookin’ at?

For many people, that statement is an aggressive way of getting somebody to stop invading their own personal space with eyes.

It is funny, how we expect privacy and feigned ignorance while we are in public places. For example, sitting at a restaurant, hotly arguing with girlfriend. Concerned customers look at you.  Suddenly , you shout at the room in general, “What are YOU lookin’ at?”

It is not a rhetorical question. It is pretty obvious what everyone is looking at. The loud jerk and the crying woman at table number five.

It is also a demand. Mind your own business people. Your soup should be very, very interesting soup bowls to stare into.

“What are YOU lookin’ at” has to be backed up by an alpha male personality. Only a person who is stupidly strong (or strongly stupid) could possibly make any implicit a reality. A person who can dominate a room with a shout, who has a deep need to be respected, would say it.

I have never heard anyone say “what are YOU lookin’ at” in my life, outside of television or movies. Maybe it only happens on TV. Maybe it only happens in New York City.

I generally keep my head down. I have never been the pack alpha, and I’ve also never really desired that title. In a culture that expects a firm handshake and direct eye contact, this poses a problem for a guy who desires promotion in corporate America. We thrive on the stuff. If you happen to be an employer from the States, and you have an employee who does not stare into your eyes, that person is considered “shifty-eyed” and untrustworthy. Avoiding someone’s gaze maybe be misconstrued as a person who lies.

In many Muslim countries, when talking to a member of the opposite sex, it is considered too intimate to make eye contact. You look at a person’s face, but not into their eyes. Or you stare at their hands.

In Japan, subordinates who meet the gaze of people in authority are considered extremely rude. Students are taught from an early age to stare at their teacher’s Adam’s apple.

They say, for many animals, that you should not make eye contact at all, unless you know them well.  If you meet a bear on a trail, do not ever lock eyes. By the way, some experts say exactly the opposite: you should make eye contact. So it sounds like you might want to avoid thinking of eye stuff altogether and stinking run away.

Experts say one reason children are more likely to be bitten by dogs is because they unwittingly refuse to disengage in eye contact.

Now, I am a naturally inquisitive guy. I like people watching, and if I admit to enjoying social wastelands like malls, it is solely because I like to see what crowds of people are up to in their everyday, uh, everyday-ness.  I stand in the back of the elevator (1) because I am huge and it’s polite, and also (2) so I can examine people without them realizing I am looking at them. But if a person promptly turns around and notices me, I quickly avert my stare. “Dum-de dum de dum… Nothing unusual going on here.  This polished steel elevator wall is quite interesting.”

I am just not good at extended eye contact. If I do it for more than a couple seconds, I start becoming conscious of the fact that I am looking. And I make myself continue the eye contact, which wipes everything else from my head until my mind is overwhelmed with the single fact that my eyes are locked into place. I lose track of the conversation and I am forced to avert my gaze.

This is a shame. I wish I were better at looking into peoples’ eyes. They say the eyes are the windows into a person’s soul. But what if your conversation partner might eats my soul? Now there is an absurd thought that has crossed my mind many, many times.  Eye-sucking soul vampires. When I get that feedback loop when I am staring into a person’s eyes, it unnerves me greatly, maybe not as much as a vampire would, but enough that I just can’t continue the eye contact.

I’ve heard of an online dating site that, after social introductions are complete, couples are asked to stare into the eyes of their partner. For five minutes. Do nothing else. Not hold hands. No taking a drink. Just breathe. And stare at the partner’s eyes. Pretty soon they cease being pools of beauty, and you see Eyes. Only eyes. and a lash out of place. Maybe mascara. And pupils. And blood vessels. I’m pretty sure you can hypnotize a chicken doing that too. Good Lord, I’m getting queasy just thinking about it.

What are YOU lookin’ at?

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