Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Is eye contact overrated?

All right, I’m looking into his eyes. Good. Now he knows I’m paying attention … Wait, it’s been 10 seconds. What if he thinks I’m staring at him? Maybe I should just look at something else for a split second so I don’t stare. Good! There’s a tree over there. Let’s look at the tree. Hold on, my glasses are also a bit smudgy. I would wipe them, but I don’t have a cloth with me. Gosh, my eyes feel a bit dry too. Better rub them soon. Shoot! I need to re-establish eye contact ASAP. There we go, eyes are aligned, once again. Ready to re-engage in this conversation. 

Wait, what was he talking about again?

As an autist, I personally believe that direct eye contact is overrated. Sure, I agree that you generally shouldn’t look away from your friend as you chat about classes in between bites of gnocchi and sweet potato. But as a kid, I heard so many people tell me that looking people directly in the eyes was the key to being a good conversationalist, as if eye contact was a panacea to prevent any awkward moments. Something that would successfully hide my insecurities about not being as good at social interactions as the other people around me. 

Well, for a while, I tried it. I resisted the urge to move my eyes around whatsoever. During every conversation — with my family members, with my friends, with my teachers, with anyone people introduced me to — I would lock in my eyes. Nothing would distract me from scanning and downloading the seeing orbs of everyone I encountered. Nothing would stop me from finally being able to have conversations in the “correct” way. 

But this didn’t necessarily make conversations easier. In fact, it often made them more uncomfortable and exhausting. When focusing on a person’s eyes, I wouldn’t pay as much attention to what they were saying. It led to several moments where I had to ask people to repeat what they said, even though my unflinching eye contact gave the illusion that I was paying close attention to them. As I grew older, it became evident that focusing on having unflinching eye contact was not the solution I needed to more easily communicate with my neurotypical peers. 

Instead, I came to a new conclusion. Having awkwardness in conversations is just as inevitable as having a stuffed nose in South Bend during the winter months. People make jokes that sounded funnier in their heads than when spoken aloud. People struggle to bring up new points to break anxious, silent lulls in a discussion. And yes, people often find it challenging to figure out exactly what to do with their eyes at any given moment. 

While many autistic people — including myself — might relate to these experiences more closely, even neurotypical people can encounter the same struggles. Despite our best efforts, none of us are immune to occasional mistakes. But in a way, this understanding comforts me. I know that conversations are inherently imperfect, so I should just try my best and see what works best for me and for those I talk with. In return, I hope that those I talk to have the grace to be patient with me. Instead of fighting the awkwardness, we should embrace it. Both me and my peers can more openly and deeply learn about each other’s experiences and aspirations if we shelve away any of our anxieties about being the world’s greatest conversationalists. While perfectionism leads to constant worries and unrealistic social expectations, vulnerability allows us to see each other as we are. 

So the next time you chat with a friend, don’t panic when the conversation goes silent for a bit. Don’t feel the need to grind your teeth to dust just because you made a movie reference that nobody understood. And finally, don’t worry about maintaining direct eye contact at all times. If I’m talking to you and my eyes don’t always line up with yours, please know that it’s not because I’m not trying to escape the conversation or because I don’t care about what you’re saying. It’s simply because I’m participating in the conversation as myself — and I’m not perfect, and that’s perfectly fine.

Jack Griffiths is a senior at Notre Dame majoring in English with a supplementary major in global affairs. His areas of interest include neurodivergence, migration and the intersections between faith and public policy. When he’s not writing, you can find him singing with the Liturgical Choir, walking around the lakes or playing Super Smash Bros with folks in his dorm. He can be reached at jgriff22@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.