For your eyes only

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A. R. Samson

Fence Sitter

Nonverbal communication is quite prevalent in our culture. Maybe it’s the nuance of our language or the avoidance of possible misunderstanding that leads to a nonverbal settling of issues. (That’s not what I meant.)

Body language is learned from childhood and an extended period of observation and sensitivity to what emotions are being expressed. Foreigners or even natives who’ve lived too long abroad can be simply clueless about this culturally biased form of communication. They mistake the absence of replies in words as non-responsiveness — he hasn’t given me any decent reply.

Impatience is manifested by someone being pressured into an unwanted meeting. The VIP, accosted by an importunate favor-seeker, may be looking at his watch or watching over the shoulder of the one speaking. (Hey, I think I see my long-lost cousin over there… I need to leave you for a while, say three weeks.)

Most body language is concentrated on the eyes including the eyebrows. Truly, in nonverbal language, the eyes are the windows to the soul, and real emotions.

Because a brief glance takes place in only a second or two, body linguists tend to dismiss its significance as simply a wayward squint. A few examples will suffice for this overlooked visual communication to be taken seriously.

Waiters, for example, train themselves to avoid making eye contact with customers at the table, especially those frantically waving to be noticed. Do they want a glass of water, or are they asking for the bill? The indolent waiter’s line of sight is two feet above the heads of seated customers, as if assessing the weight of the chandeliers overhead. Alternatively, the waiters look down as if in search of a lost coin that dropped from the bill folder. What is ignored by this work-avoidance technique is making eye contact with a customer, because once this is established, the waiter has no choice but to find out what the pest wants.

Say, you are waiting at the office of a doctor whom you know socially, maybe a close family friend or a cousin. If he steps out of his clinic into the waiting area to give instructions to the secretary, he does not scan the lobby at waiting patients. Doing so is likely to result in locking eyes with an acquaintance and disrupt the queuing sequence. He has taken lessons from waiters too.

But what if eyes lock together in a friendly state of recognition? This less than random connection is wordless but full of meaning. It may be followed by the nod of the head and a pursing of the lips to indicate a particular corner of a large ballroom to meet up in. The unbroken eye contact tethers the two persons. The unspoken message is clear — can I have your new mobile number? This visual connection offers a promise of after-dinner coffee.

It’s not only eye contact or avoidance that communicate desire or loathing. Part of the language of eye movement includes eyebrows. One raised eyebrow can denote surprise or disbelief in whatever is being proposed. (You really think your preposterous proposal deserves even fleeting consideration.)

Two eyebrows shooting up and acknowledged with a reciprocal eyebrow signal from another party in a rarely patronized restaurant is a form of greeting that conveys a conspiratorial pact — Okay, I didn’t see you with the person who’s hanging on to your elbow. She is obviously not a caregiver.

In Western culture, eye contact is limited to a negotiating pose. It is a stare that challenges the other to raise the ante. Victory is declared when the other one blinks first or looks away. But words will definitely be uttered as body language alone cannot convey victory or defeat.

Like the spoken word that can no longer be taken back, eye contact needs to be deliberate. It is specifically directed at a target. Once the eyes lock, the message conveyed is either welcoming or dismissive. In terms of subtle body language, the eyes have it. Like Robert de Niro in the stare down confrontation in the movie, Taxi Driver, the challenger leaves no doubt on who he is accosting with his eyes — I am looking at you.


A. R. Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.