If someone were to write the rulebook for eye contact in humans (Volume 1, abridged,For Dummies, etc) I have a feeling it would use enough paper to provoke a second Last March of the Ents.
Like when you’re walking along the footpath, and you see someone walking towards you. Your eyes meet, but then for some reason you have to pretend you didn’t see one another and break eye contact until you reach Acceptable Recognition Distance (A.R.D.) which seems to be approximately 6 meters. You are then allowed to briefly make eye contact again as you pass. It’s so weird!
Or how about when you’re talking to somebody? It seems logical to maintain eye contact during conversation to show you’re listening, but apparently this too is the ocular equivalent of farting in a peak hour tram. You have to sort of periodically drop eye contact every 8 seconds or so, to prevent it from becoming awkward. I have to keep reminding myself to do this, but sometimes I get so caught up in the conversation that I can end up staring like a hypnotized Bush Baby.
Talking to a group. Should I look each person in the eye one at a time? How long should I maintain contact with each one? If I’m not the one talking, it seems sensible to look at the person who is talking, but what about when the conversation is bouncing between multiple people all over the room? My head can end up swiveling around like the periscope of a submarine after the captain’s had one too many espresso shots.
And then there’s eye-to-other-things contact. Oh boy. Now, I find it fairly easy to process “don’t stare at a female human’s mammary glands for it is most uncouth in 98% of circumstances.” That much I get. But then there’s T-shirts/pants with writing on the chest/bum. Now I’m the kind of guy who stops to read the bumper stickers on parked cars (my favourite one so far is “So many pedestrians, so little time”) or to sneak-peak the front page of the Herald Scum while it line at the supermarket. I see words, I read it, its instinctive, and I find it very hard to override this urge. But if it’s rude to look, why is it there? Is it a prank, like those signs they stuck on people’s backs in primary school that say “kick me”? Does not compute…
Compounding the problem is that for people on the spectrum, eye contact can feel rather… confronting, kind of like when you’re a kid and you’ve been sent to the principal’s office. In fact, lack of eye contact is often an early marker of autism in kids. Meeting someone’s gaze can require a conscious and sometimes considerable effort.
Luckily, the best way to get better at something is practice, and with eye contact, every interaction throughout the day is an opportunity for practice. I personally find that it’s like most acquired skills; the more you throw yourself into it, the more you learn, and the easier it gets. 🙂