Direct eye contact has magical powers. You wanna know how I know? ‘Cause every time I employ some, things fall into place. People these days are so wrapped up in looking at their phones that they can’t bother to break that glazed gaze unless shit has somehow gotten real, IRL. Trust me, no one’s looking at you. No one cares that you’ve walked into their field of view. You’re this faceless, nameless being that exists somewhere in the periphery, unimportant and undetected. We’re all undetected periphery to everyone else, and that’s just fine. We’d blow a fuse if we earnestly tried to connect with every joker that crossed our path. Could you imagine attempting to have a meaningful relationship with everyone that comes in and out of your daily existence? I’m gonna have to invoke the almighty Roger Murtaugh here and insist that I’m too old for this shit.
Seeing as we’re all white noise in someone else’s movie, forcing a person to accept that they’re dealing with another human being by looking them dead in the eyes, tends to be jarring. What’s more, it gets things done. If you don’t believe me, give it a try and get back to me.
Personally, I lead with direct eye contact whenever attempting to actually accomplish something. Despite how it’s perceived, I don’t do it to be confrontational. I do it to signal that I’m here. I’m present and will be fully engaged in the exchange that follows. I also do it because I hate when people approach me and then can’t bring themselves to look me in the face while talking to me. That’s nonsense, and I do not accept.
As grown human beings we should be able to look someone in the face when we’re talking to them, especially if we’re asking something of them. I get being shy. I myself am shy, no matter what it looks like from over there. Despite being somewhat timid, I’m still fully capable of biting the bullet and directing my undivided attention to another person while interacting with them. I do it out of courtesy and I expect the same in return. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to be acknowledged as a human being while being spoken to. If it is, kill me now ‘cause I won’t be able to deal with a lifetime full of eye-averting cowards.
Because direct eye contact can be seen as combative and intimidating, it’s not always welcome. Nevertheless, for me it’s 100% effective. For example, I traveled to Colorado once for a show. I flew all the way from San Francisco to Denver to see a band at a cool venue. Since I’d spent a bunch of money to go to this concert, I made sure to get to the venue early. I’m not the only psycho fan and I knew there’d be a line to get in well before doors opened that evening.
I stood in line outside the Fillmore sweating like an animal in oppressive, shoe-melting heat that day. For well over two hours I hydrated, made conversation with fellow concertgoers and cursed the sun for searing my skin. It’s a lot, I know, but it’s what I do. It’s what many of us do because I see a lot of familiar faces whenever I’m at one of these gigs. The guy that later attempted to jack my spot when I left momentarily to get drinks was not one of those faces.
My friend Isabel had made the trip to Denver with me. She too is a psycho fan and braved the heat alongside me for hours. She was just as tired and excited as I was by the time we got to go inside. When the doors opened, we swiftly made our way through security and headed directly toward our usual spot. When we got to the stage, we found some space up along the guardrail and settled in. Once we figured out where everything was located, my friend made her way to the merch booth. She wanted to get a t-shirt and hit the bathroom before the show. I stayed back to hold our spots.
When Isabel reappeared, she had drinks, bless her soul. Because we were dehydrated from baking in the sun, we sucked those babies down like water. Unfortunately, they weren’t water and the gin just made us thirstier. I decided I’d go get us refills and asked her to hold my spot along the railing while I was gone. She obliged and I made my way to the nearest bar. I got us a couple of doubles, and with one overfilled cup of glory in each hand, I walked gingerly back to where I’d left my friend.
When I got back, I found some bro with a buzz cut harassing Isabel. As I caught sight of this, I hastened my step. As I approached, I made a point to listen to their exchange. I heard my friend responding defiantly, insisting that she was saving a spot for someone. Unfortunately, Buzz-Cut Bro didn’t seem to care what she was saying because he wasn’t backing down. It made me furious.
When I approached, I looked at Isabel and then over at Buzz-Cut Bro. Holding my enormous drinks, I smiled big and looked him square in the face. Leaning in I said non threateningly, “Hi! Is there a problem? I asked her to hold that spot for me.” Then I flashed another mile-wide smile, cocked my head to one side and stared this man down. I held his gaze hoping he wouldn’t be a dick about it and blatantly push us out of there. If this jerk was intent on stealing our spots, I was going to make him say the words to my motherfucking face before he could proclaim victory.
To my surprise, instead of telling me to fuck off, the guy immediately softened his expression, flashed a toothy smile, put his arm around me and gave me a half-hug. I winced internally because who hugs complete strangers? Oblivious, he responded, “Oh no there’s no problem at all, honey. I’m so sorry I didn’t realize this was your spot.” To which I responded, “hell yes it is, I melted my face off in the sun for over two hours to get that spot.” With that I let out a loud, warm laugh and touched his shoulder reassuringly. I wanted to be real with this dude, but I didn’t’ want to be a complete bitch about it and so I went with reciprocating the uninvited shoulder touch. It worked because moments later we laughed off the exchange and parted ways. Buzz-Cut Bro was going to have to find somewhere else to stand because this spot was mine tonight.
Had I not rolled into this exchange fully aware of what I was doing, and confident in my perspective, he would have bullied his way into my line of sight. He was a big, stalky guy that commanded space. He looked like he expected people to give him his way because that was all he ever knew. Not today though, because I came at him with direct and confident eye contact, which completely threw him off.
If I had rolled up to Isabel and Buzz averting my eyes, unsure of my words and myself, he would have laughed us both out of there. Instead, I kept my spot and enjoyed the show without straining my neck trying to see over some tall person’s shoulders. Being a short, doe-eyed chick sometimes has its advantages. It makes people not want to punch me right away when I challenge them. I use this to my advantage every chance I get. Find your own disarming quality, play it up the next time you stare someone down and you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.
Still unsure if direct eye contact is for you? Try it out in one of following scenarios:
- When you’re stuck at a four-way stop with three people who have no idea who should go next. You know who should go next because you were paying attention. Look them dead in the eye. The moment they meet your gaze, they’ll figure it out and things will move along smoothly. Just watch.
- Upon meeting new people. Look them in the eye and make sure to check your handshake. Ensure that you’ve got a firm and confident grip going. Don’t be the wimp/pretentious jerk with the loose hand. No one likes loose hand.
- When someone’s coming at you on the sidewalk, knowing full well they’re headed straight for you. You don’t want to get shoulder checked. If they’re just trying to bulldoze through you, make and hold direct eye contact. You’ll be given more space to get by or they might even move out of your way entirely.
- When you’re in your car and another driver blocks the intersection in front of you. You won’t really be able to look them in the face, but at least they’ll feel you drilling holes into their temple with your intense stare. All you stand to gain from this, though, is spiteful release, which is entirely acceptable because how dare they?
I could go on, but you get the idea. Don’t be a wimp, not when it matters. Knowing what to do isn’t hard. Figuring out what matters enough to warrant defiantly locking eyes with someone is the tricky part. Expend your energy wisely. Time and energy are all we've got.