Look ’em in the eye

“Look ‘em in the eye” is one of those age-old platitudes, the kind of advice you’d give someone who’s about to lay it on the line, stand up for themselves, or deliver some powerful message that’s steeped in conviction. I marched right in there and looked ‘em in the eye and said…Not today, buster!

In a more everyday sense, looking someone in the eye is a basic principle of communication. Eye contact creates an instantly trusting dynamic, while avoiding it can come across as shifty or even somehow guilty (though it’s worth noting that some people are just uncomfortable with eye contact for reasons entirely personal).

Lately though, this expression has taken on a new meaning. At least to me. And maybe that’s because it’s been 8 months since I’ve had actual eye contact with someone besides my immediate family and the cashier at the hardware store. Yes, like hand sanitizer and toilet paper, the pandemic has rendered eye contact temporarily out of stock. In-person meetings are rare, and while technically you can make eye contact over a Zoom call – through your camera, while you’re trying to circumvent a nagging echo – it’s not quite the same thing.

But even before the pandemic, the idea of looking a person in the eye, literally and figuratively, seemed antiquated—a casualty of social media, a bitterly divided country and the informational silos that vindicate us and feed our anger. It’s easy to dislike someone when they exist only as a message board representing a set of values diametrically opposed to your own. It’s not so easy when that person is a relative or a neighbor or a friend and you see them not as an account but as flesh and blood, a unique patchwork of life experience, personality and culture.

This isn’t to say that the Facebook groups we join are in any way false, or that the stances we take on Twitter are unworthy. These are challenging times, and social networks can bring real comfort and connection to people. But we lose a critical dimension when we no longer have the ability or desire to look each other in the eye. Because it really isn’t just about announcing your own authority or conviction. It’s about finding another’s humanity. It’s about forging the shortest and clearest path to common ground.

The pandemic will end soon. The world will once again fill up with in-person contact. Will we overcome those other barriers that divide us? I hope so. But we need to look each other in the eye. After all, the eyes are the windows to the soul. And soul is a good thing.