Monday, June 04, 2012

Eye Contact

A lot of comments on the last post are extremely valuable.  There is a lot of input on social rules for eye contact and there are profound gender differences and cultural differences.  Your history and depth of understanding will deeply affect how you use eye contact for communication. It is huge.

But it's not just an external thing.  Absolutely, people will read a message in my eye contact.  As Mac has been known to say, "I want them to look in my eyes and see the price of admission."  With a glance, certain people can raise the stakes beyond what all but the craziest are willing to pay.  Different contact, different message.

But eye contact also sends a message to yourself.  The way you look at the world not only affects how you see but affects how the world responds, it affects what does and doesn't work.

In the external/communication analysis of eye contact, you send a message:
Downcast eyes: "I am no threat to you.  You have no need to hurt me.  Please don't hurt me."
Interested look at the face: "You are interesting and I am learning."
Hard look in the eyes: "I am bigger and stronger.  I am the boss here."
Not looking, but not downcast: "You are not the most important thing in my world.  You are no threat to me."

In the internal world, the same levels of eye contact do something to you as well.
Downcast eyes: Not just signal meekness but force you to be reactive.  Partially physically, but mostly emotionally, the downcast eyes completely cede initiative.  Anything you do from here will be in response, not an action.  Not finding the words... communication aside, if you can't make eye contact (some auties excepted) lowering your eyes internally turns you into the kind of person who will not act.  It is not just a sign of passivity, it makes you passive.
Interested look in the face: Makes you interested and curious.  It opens your perception and helps you quit being self-centered.
Hard look in the eyes: Sets you to take control of your world.  Turns you into the kind of person who will assert him or herself.  To an extent, eye contact is a sign of assertiveness, but it is also a step to becoming assertive.
Not looking but not downcast: Relaxes you.  By removing the personal element, the need to prove, it turns you into the kind of person for whom this (whatever 'this' is, including various forms of violence) is just a job.  Something to be done efficiently.

These aren't automatic, but the point is that eye contact (like posture and breathing and other things) doesn't just change the way the world sees you.  It literally changes who you are.

To NRY's point-- when you have a group that have the dominance games down, who enjoy rolling, if you are paying attention you will notice all kinds of inefficiencies creeping in, most of them types of signals.  Some people actually believe that pulling back your fist makes the punch stronger and I've heard some pretty detailed, mathematical sounding excuses for it... but as near as I can tell the real purpose is to give the other monkey just enough time to turn this into the kind of contest that might impress a chimpanzee female.  There are aspects of exploiting momentum that are very hard for young men to do because in order to send the dominance signal and show their strength, they have to piss away the momentum they are trying to exploit.

I want them to be hunters, not fighters.  To be beyond any concept of contest.  It's a different level than merely 'flipping the switch.'  Maija sent me an e-mail a long time ago pointing me at an article.  I can't remember who wrote it and I'm basically too happy right now (G&T on a Mediterranean beach with local calamari and shrimp stirfry on the way) to search through old e-mails or I'd link it.  But the guy used the old :
Unconscious Incompetence
Conscious Incompetence
Conscious Competence
Unconscious Competence

But he added another layer that made perfect sense to me, a consciously unconscious competence.  You don't have to think about what you are doing, but you are monitoring it, aware of all the surrounding stuff, making decisions...but it doesn't interfere with the physicality of it.

You see it sometimes in a really good instructor who is sparring one of his students while watching the others.  He stays smooth and relaxed, doesn't get tense, if anything spars better than when he is focussed and, the weird part, if the student he is sparring does something dangerous, the instructor just drops him without engaging at all on an emotional level OR if he sees the students he is watching do something unsafe, he can step away from his own sparring session in such a way that he doesn't get touched and sometimes his 'opponent' even loses balance as if it were nothing.  Because, internally, it is nothing.

IF you can get to the place where none of this is important (and that's a big if) your efficiency goes off the charts.  Not just that you are less likely to subconsciously communicate instead of remove, but also because you are more likely to see the real situation, the real problem and the real goal...not your internal interpretations.

Sorry if this sounds a little outside the ballpark, but there are some huge epiphanies on that edge and this is one of them.


Justthisguy said...

Back during the last Toys for Tots campaign I came across a Marine when walking into the local Publix. He was perfectly turned out in khaki above and blue below, had lots of ribbons on his chest, three chevrons, diamond, and one or two rockers on his sleeve (I can't remember exactly.) but looked painfully young and scrawny. (He was probably about 1/3 my age, scrawnier than I am, and I go about 135 lbs. soaking wet.)

Yet there was a menace about him, and I and all others got out of his way. He had what I can only describe as The Death Stare, which says, "Don't mess with this guy!"

Justthisguy said...

P.s. I think I might be slightly autistic, which is why I sometimes don't notice the significance of people's facial expressions.

There was no ambiguity in the above case at the Publix. It was obvious, even to a socially clueless Aspie, that that guy was an hardass. We do get the social signals, they just have to be a bit louder for us to notice them.

nry said...

I've always gone for the looking but unfocused on specifics type of 'look' - I wonder if it achieves the same aim of relaxing and removing the personal etc. from the situation...might do a little bit of playing around next session. I want to take in as much as possible without having to focus, using all my vision - peripheral etc. If memory serves, you actually extend your peripheral vision by looking down as you gain a touch of rearward viewing, not just in front.

Mac said...

To avoid the appearance of submission, and not feel 'submittive,' I use the scanning method - look, then look sideways (either way). It says, "I've seen you, acknowledged your presence and have moved on to other things. With a very slightly longer eye-to-eye, you say, "I've seen and acknowledged and found you insignificant.". Look again and subtly nod gives both parties face and no need or expectation for further contact. These 'rules' are, of course, for male-male contact.

Adrastia said...


the entire Dictionary is invaluable. Well known in anthropological/academic communities. Observations by MAs and others is enormously expanded and researched here.

And teaching/cultural socialization
is not haphazard. Certain people are taught to 'look' and 'gaze' in specific ways. If they do not, there are consequences, both direct and indirect. Women/girls learn what they may or may not do in terms of how, when, where and to whom they should direct that gaze.

And the internal effect, which you, Rory, have noticed and describe here, is also intentional and purposeful. It is presented as
'appropriate' or 'ladylike' and 'feminine'. The parallel effect of
internalizing emotions of deference, compliance and helplessness is highly effective.

MA/SD4W instructors are often highly frustrated upon observing the immediate effects of this thorough, accumulated (and now unconscious)socialization and conditioning.

Rory, thank you for bringing this to the the attention of your readers. I'm sure this will help make sense of what they see but can't think how to explain or make sense.

Dave Akell said...

Great stuff, as usual. Been on the job 15 and did EP and security prior and just got around to reading some of your books and blog. I must say you are like a lifelong carpenter with the ability to just spot on nail these topics on the head. I have been studying MA, SD and weapons/tactics for about 20 years and most of that seems like wading through so much BS. I was going to mention the mutual nod thing, but Mac beat me to it, so I'll second the observation. Keep up the good work and stay safe brother.

Melisa said...

Thought of you while reading this quote earlier today: "It is by doing things that need to be learned in order to be done, that you learn them." (Aristotle)

I'm keeping my hair shaved or short for the first time in a number of years. I know that gender socialization is a deep thing; still disturbing to notice how many people, particularly women, treat me like I am suddenly more intelligent - and also how I find it easier to pull off some things that require daring, certainty, etc, with the new look. The haircut/masculinization is obviously not so uncommon of a strategy... and obviously misogyny is not exactly fun, but it is fun to play with external and internal expectations, to see how little it can take to keep others uneasy or to create an internal shift.

It is my hope, with teaching self defense and martial arts, to help people move into their bodies in strong ways, and to shift the relationship to violence (especially with women) from "victim or potential victim" to "player/participant." From there I really think a lot is possible.

I also think many of us wish there was a formula or some kind of trick, that would help students or other people we care about feel up to the challenges their lives present. A man approached me at a party tonight about a woman we both know who is my age, asking if I could mentor her. Unfortunately I don't think I have anything significant that I am willing/able to offer her in terms of that type of relationship, and I know that every woman/person has to walk their own road in terms of finding ways to be in the world that feel powerful and satisfying to them. As you and Adrastia speak to in different ways in your last post, conditioning is deep, and people have very different roads to being able to (as Adrienne Rich said) occupy the space they occupy.

Thanks for posting the Center for Nonverbal Studies dictionary Adrastia, I am looking forward to looking at it.

Justthisguy said...

Mac, that's pretty much what I've always done, at least since I learned how to get along with the normals.

The only time I stare into anybody's eyes and he stares right back at me is when I am in church and he holds out the cup, saying, "This is the blood of Christ, which was shed for you."