Infants have no problem with eye contact. They zero in on you when you look at them, and though at some point you might look away, when you look back they are still locked on to you like a sidewinder missile.
At some point, this changes and most kids become wary of making eye contact. I had to work with my kids when they were young teenagers to look at me when we were talking. It did not come easy. There was one exception. I told them that when they received a compliment, to always look down at their feet, draw circles on the ground with one of their toes, and say “aww, shucks.” This was cruel on my part – the proper response being to look at the complimenter and say a simple “thank you” – and revealed that I had watched altogether too much of the Andy Griffith Show when I was a boy. “Aww shucks Aunt Bee,” Opie would so often say.
My parents moved a lot when I was young, and I never made a lot of friends since it seemed I was always in a new school. I didn’t think that people, as a rule, liked me. I was not depressed about that, it was just the way it was.
As a sophomore in high school, I began thinking about how to change that. I realized that walking around school, my gaze was usually down at the ground or up in the sky looking at airplanes, and my expression was less – as in expression-less. I decided I would start walking around with a smile on my face, just to see what happened. It was hard and awkward at first, but after a while it became my default expression. I also decided to say hi to people as they passed, and started learning the names of my classmates and committing them to memory. It is impossible to say hi to someone without looking at them, so I also began making eye contact. Over time, people would smile back, and occasionally remember my name.
It felt good, but it didn’t occur to me that a major alteration in my social life had taken place until someone told me: “Ken, everyone likes you.” I was floored. I had no idea. Looking at people, saying hi, and smiling worked.
As an adult, I still walk around with a smile on my face, looking at people as they pass by, often giving them an ever-so-slight additional lift of my cheeks that suggests that I see them, I acknowledge them, and want them to know I am smiling at them. In some towns, this might lead people to immediately avert their gaze, but in Portland, more often than not, I get an immediate, involuntary return smile back. “Made you smile,” I’ll say to myself.
But now we all wear masks when we go outside. It is a deeply depressing time, made more so, so I thought, because we can no longer smile at each other. But I was wrong. The best part of a smile is the smile that comes through the eyes. The slight squint, the lilt of the outer edges, the eyebrow lift, the eye contact.
So I started trying to make eye contact and smiling through my mask as I saw people in the elevator (maintaining 6′ separation) or while walking outside (maintaining at least 6′ separation). To my dismay, no return smiles, no acknowledgment, no eye contact. It was as if I didn’t exist, as if looking at someone else would expose them to the virus.
Somehow, physical separation has inculcated in us a perceived need for social isolation as well. “Social distancing” – a misnomer – has been taken too far, and we have become reluctant to talk to one another, and even acknowledge each other’s existence (except that wary look that says “are you sure you want to take this elevator, maybe you want to take the next one”).
Let me be the first to say this: you cannot catch Covid 19 through eye to eye contact! You cannot catch the Coronavirus through a smile. Acknowledging each other’s existence does not put any of us at risk.
So I am now back to smiling at people I come across, albeit through a mask, and watching in wonder at how much we are able to communicate through our eyes, and hoping against hope that I will get an involuntary smile back. And occasionally, even now, I do.
“Made you smile.”