Clearly there were other factors at play but it felt strange to hear that this is how I come across. You see, with very few exceptions I struggle enormously with eye contact. I’m very uncomfortable with anything I see as intimate until I’m comfortable with a person. I once screamed at a customer in Jessops for grasping my arm to get my attention. I slapped him away and told him it was not acceptable to grab at people. I fled to the bathroom to wash my arm. Personal space is a big OCD trigger for me and fortunately one that is generally respected in the UK. Because I’m fully aware of my feelings, I have rationalised my way to general social acceptability. I’m happy to shake hands and while I go wooden if someone air kisses me, I at least no longer flinch. Eye contact has been my big compromise; the way I see it, if I make eye contact I cannot be accused of being rude.
But every time I do it, it’s something I’m making an effort to do. Even with the fiancé I have what is like a backing track playing on a loop (You’re with someone so look at them. You’re with someone so look at them. You’re with someone so look at them). In my interview I had to give a fifteen minute power point presentation. I looked at the screen then two of the three interviewers in turn and this was on a pattern such as first and second, first and third, second and third. When asked a question I looked at the person asking the question then glanced at the other two to see whether there were any visual cues to pick up on. Oh and I smiled. A lot.
I always think I must seem like an idiot but clearly the patterns to my behaviour pass unnoticed and I come across well. Perhaps the fact that everyone in that position is nervous obscures any tension I have. Upon reflection, it struck me that actually this is why I’m a warm approachable person much of the time. I don’t feel warm and approachable so I try extra hard to seem that way. As a result, my constant efforts render me scoring higher on this than people less concerned about how they come across. Because it is so at odds with my nature, I never forget or get lazy when it comes to eye contact.
I’ve been looking at other people more closely (my obsessive compulsions make me disgustingly self centred) and I’ve noticed how few people do make eye contact. While this suits me fine, I can appreciate that people comfortable with general social intimacy might find it rude. When we have visitors at work who have a problem or query that the front of house staff can’t immediately answer, I go to talk to them. Usually I find that people just want a few minutes of someone’s time where they feel they are being listened to. They want their wants and needs taken on board, to feel valued. Almost all visitors who have (for example) a card from a certain visitor scheme that we don’t participate in pay admission nevertheless. The vast majority just want recognition that the situation is frustrating but a genuine apology and a quick chat about what makes the Dean Heritage Centre special sees them decide to come in anyway. It helps that I take a positive from this, sometimes I hear about a scheme that would be good to participate in and I can gain valuable insights by asking people to tell me about it. If I didn’t make eye contact, they’d not only be less likely to take away a positive experience of the Centre but I wouldn’t get their helpful feedback.
For me eye contact is an active choice and I suppose the OCD which makes me hyper aware of my surroundings gives me the advantage of always being tuned in. Still, every day we make choices about our mood. I was once asked by a co-worker at Jessops how I was able to be so cheerful at work. My response was that my smile was my defence in a job where we got a lot of grief for things that weren’t our fault. Much as I hated the printed strap I was meant to wear around my neck (and refused) that stated “Choose your mood and make their day,” I agreed with the sentiment. My job was easier when I chose to be smiley and cheerful. Most people appreciate a bit of banter in the workplace and I suppose my attitude to work is to extend that to the customers and visitors I come into contact with.
I’m not saying you have to make eye contact but it is a wonderful social lubricant. I find it a truly challenging thing to do but I get more out of it than I put in. Sure it can be hard work to slap a smile on your face and start each work day with enthusiasm but it’s harder to make it through eight hours where you’re keeping your barriers up.
Believe me when I say I hate making eye contact but I am always glad that I have.