Eye Contact is not a constant. I have found that it changes through ages, cultures, sexes, curiosity, familiarity, and gumption. The amount of time that a pair of individuals will keep a connection between themselves by looking each other in the eye seems to be determined on each individual pairing.
My prompt asks about a spectrum between Shifty-Eyed Evader and Unblinking Intimidator. But I have a slight problem with this spectrum. Mostly because I think it has to do more with culture norms, and what is allowed, rather than a need to stare down others. Don’t get me wrong, I have had my fair share of stare-downs.
I would like to suggest that there are many different kinds of staring. Yes, you can intimidate others by staring them down, the way a boss will shoot angry daggers into your soul when a mistake has been made. (Not necessarily by you, but you are getting the blame for sure.) Or when a preacher is making a point about sin and evil, and if she is focusing in on you while she makes her point, you better be looking into your soul, or she needs to check how she preaches. Or a lecherous man staring down at you, using his eyes to posses your body. Those are intimidating.
The other kinds of staring can be intimidating, if you get them the wrong way, but they have much less riding on them. One I found in Kenya, was that a child will stare at a stranger, especially one of a different color and dressed differently, for an eternity, or at least until they walk away. I must have been stared at a thousand times when I was in Kenya (and that’s a low estimate) because of how I looked and how “strange” I was. It wasn’t just children, it could be anybody. Women and men, young and old, well dressed or hung in tatters, it didn’t matter. The one time it really bothered me was when I was riding on a Matatu, the local public transportation vans, and three or four people surrounding me would stare at me for the length of the ride. At least, it seemed that way, surely they would have gotten tired after 15 minutes, but who knows.
It was there, in Kenya, that I began to stare back. If a child was staring at me, looking so intently that I began to wonder if they were capable of X-Ray vision to see what was behind me, perhaps out the window, then I would stare back at him. It felt odd at first. You’re no supposed to keep eye contact with a stranger that long in my culture. but it let them know that I was aware they were staring.
It is surprising how well a stare can be translated. “You may look, but you have to know that I am aware that you are looking. And I can look right back at you.” Soon, they broke contact. Perhaps they were able to not stare so obviously the next time. I would do it with adults, too. They bothered me more, really because I thought they should know better.
They were staring into my space, they were shrinking my bubble and I did not like it. And yet, though my steady vision in response were defensive, they may also have been translated as offensive harsh glares.
Probably, they were just being curious. I had on a strange shirt, I might have been wearing a skirt they had never seen anything like, my hair was very odd, and I looked greasy. What is this? They also probably had no clue how old I was. They might have been wondering where my parents were. And white women did not usually ride on their vans.
As I became more comfortable with my surroundings, and as I learned the language of those around me, I began to introduce myself to those who were staring, and we came to understand each other.
When I returned to the United States, I found that I was exceeding the culturally accepted time in which eye contact is comfortable. I find I stare more than others like. I am not doing it to intimidate, but rather I am doing what I found others doing to me, looking because I am curious. I had a friend call me out on it, because I especially liked her style and she said that she could tell I liked it.
I had a stare-off with someone when I got back, but that was more of a challenge between the two of us, and did not really serve to intimidate between us.
For now, I am curious and will continue to look at others with open eyes. I find that I have to tell myself to look away from someone if they seem to be uncomfortable with the deep connection that happens with extended eye contact.
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Eye contact connects between two individuals, and brings them closer together. Eye contact communicates and extends different emotions, warnings, and passions. A glance between lovers is significantly different than one enemy staring down another. Eyes can be windows to the soul, but they can also be shut down and curtained and shut. We need so much from others when we look into their eyes. And then we can be challenged to “look me in the eyes” by a bully. What a set of strong, delicate, quick muscles that God has designed. We cry, we laugh, tears fall and eyes squint. We see more than we know, and we miss more than we realize. We dream, and we see images that our imaginations blame on our eyes.
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What do you see?