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Davis, California

Monday, July 15, 2024

Cosmic Relevance: Eye Contact

Working at the ASUCD Coffee House, I have been trained in how to properly treat a customer. To enforce positive customer service, we are supposed to follow the three S’s: See the customer before they approach the line, Speak to them first and put on a friendly Smile.

So, I know what’s expected of me — my full attention.

While serving up salads the other day, I wondered to myself, what do I expect out of the customer?

To answer this question, I started to take note of both the interactions I enjoyed and the interactions that made me feel irked.

Not surprisingly, I took pleasure in being engaged in conversation.  Whether a customer asked how my day was going, or if it was a simple comment about the weather, I liked the attempt at real communication.

However, soon it became clear what exactly got my goat. I observed that I got annoyed when a customer would rather pay attention to their electronic gadget than to the food I was preparing. It’s not that our generation can’t multi-task, but it seems rude to begrudgingly shift one’s awareness when prompted with a food-related question.

Although I never outwardly express my feelings of dissatisfaction, these moments leave me with lingering malaise. For some reason, these encounters affect me, and I think about them even after my shift is over.  In these instances, I would no longer feel like a fellow student, working between classes. Instead, I felt more like another machine in the consumer’s day.

Exactly what was it that made me feel underappreciated? After some reflection, I thought of a possible missing ingredient — eye contact.

But was meeting one’s gaze that important, or is it just important to me?

For instance, direct eye contact is discouraged in some cultures.  In Japanese schools, students are taught to lower one’s gaze before a figure of respect. But in any case, it is recognized for holding power.

To make sure I wasn’t an outlier in my own community, I asked students around campus to define eye contact.

The answers greatly varied.

Some seemed unaware of the concept, one student saying “iContact? Is that a new app?”

However, most students defined it as a ubiquitous human form of relating to others. Another student defined eye contact as way to “form a non-verbal connection with another individual.” For a different student, it was “a method of communication that bridges language barriers or societal barriers.”

 And the scientific community seems to agree. In studies conducted in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America, they assert, “Making eye contact is the most powerful mode of establishing a communicative link between humans.”  It seems that eye contact is a primal action, as infants “demonstrate special sensitivity to direct eye contact from birth.” Eye contact is embedded into our natural development.

And the studies show that nature uses eye contact for two major functions: forming intimacy and signaling dominance. On one hand mothers use eye contact to form bonds with their babies. On the other hand, dogs will stare down threats to show aggression.

Yet these examples still seemed extreme; I was not loving nor fighting at work. So, I asked more students a different question: what are the implications of making eye contact?

These answers got to what I was looking for.

One student summed it up with, “Respect.” This sentiment was mirrored by another student who said that sharing that eye contact “shows that you want to interact with the person on the other end of the contact.”  Looking at another person directly implies that you are not only listening, but that you are really present. Finally, one student voiced, “it’s how you connect to someone’s soul.”

Just as “please” and “thank you” are important courtesy practices, I found that making eye contact works the same way. I’m not advocating staring contests with strangers. I offer the simple truth that you can make a person feel more like a person by simply looking their way.

If you want to practice staring into someone’s soul with DANIEL HERMAN, he can be contacted at dsherman@ucdavis.edu.


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