I have always been told that I have an eye contact problem. When most people hear this, they assume that I mean how I have trouble maintaining eye contact. However, my apparent problem is the exact opposite; I’m told that I make too much eye contact with people while speaking with them.
It is one complaint that has followed me all throughout my childhood (and subsequent adult years), by people alleging that I am not showing them proper respect because I insist on “staring” at them as we talk. Yet, despite numerous attempts to remedy this supposed faux pas of mine, I have never really been able to figure out what the socially acceptable amount of eye contact is supposed to be. Hence, what results is me trying to simultaneously give someone my complete attention, while worrying that I have given her/him too much attention, and made her/him feel uncomfortable because of it.
The reason I have always been inclined to make direct eye contact with whomever I happen to be speaking to at the moment, is my desire to hear and understand every word that is being spoken to me by said individual. I make the assumption that if you find it worthwhile to approach me in conversation about a topic, you want me to actually listen to what you have to say, and not nod my head and shift my eyes aimlessly, looking for a distraction to avoid looking at your eyes.
The strangest part is that when I’m confronted about my intense eye contact habit, and told that I’m being rude to the person whose words I’m trying to hear, my sincere request to get some constructive feedback on the matter is always met with scorn. “You should already know why it’s obviously wrong,” is the answer I usually get (which is obviously asinine since I obviously don’t know). The second most common answer is that it makes the person I’m speaking to uncomfortable, which though reasonable, still doesn’t validate the notion that my behavior is wrong.
Breaking the routine of a person with obsessive compulsive disorder will definitely make the person afflicted with OCD uncomfortable, but doing so is a necessary step in getting the person to break away from her/his compulsion (assuming the person wants to break from it). In that same regard, how can I be sure that it is not society’s aversion to eye contact that is the problem here?
I know from my experience teaching in a classroom that students who actually look at me as I’m lecturing tend to retain more information, than those who never lift their heads from the paper in front of them. This is because communication is not strictly verbal, so being told to listen with just my ears and never my eyes comes across as a strange demand to me, since I know that I will register more of what you’re saying if I look at you while we’re conversing. Do you not want me to grasp and thoroughly contemplate everything you have to say?
And, yes, I’m aware that there are people who have different kinds of social anxieties and communicative disorders, who are physically and psychologically incapable of making eye contact with others. But I have a hard time believing that the vast majority of people I happen to come across in casually conversation fall into this category. Also, as someone who suffers from stage fright, I can totally understand the desire to not have people gawk at you incessantly while I’m giving a talk. However, the issue I’m referring to here is limited strictly to a one-on-one conversation, usually started by someone approaching me to discuss a topic s/he feels is important enough to speak to me about. The idea that it is impolite to maintain eye contact with someone who has chosen to speak with me, baffles me to no end, and honestly makes me wonder about the state of our self-worth as a people, when we are so easily unnerved and intimidated by anyone who dares to closely observe and pay attention to what we have to say.
Despite having said all this, I do constantly try to accommodate to people’s desires and limit the amount eye contact I give to a person during conversation, but I really wish someone would give me the guidelines to how much is too much, or not enough, since I obviously am not able to figure it out on my own.