I’ve been to my local supermarket enough times to know pretty much where everything is, when ice cream is on special, and to have favourite checkout operators. They always remember that I don’t need a bag and always look me in the eye with a smile as they hand over my change.
The appropriateness of eye contact varies among cultures. But at its most basic, making eye contact with someone not only acknowledges that you’re listening to them, but that they exist.
In Japan, when I’m with a friend who doesn’t look Asian and they ask a Japanese person a question in Japanese, I pay particular attention to the Japanese person. Most of the time they will look at my friend and reply. Unfortunately, there have been too many times when they ignore my friend and address me instead. This happens most often with people in customer service positions — which is puzzling, seeing as they’re supposed to have advanced people skills. I have actually walked away from conversations to force customer service people to look at the person I’m with and not me. Ignoring someone who asks you a question is rude — it tells them that you think they aren’t important, or that you think they aren’t able to understand the answer.
Eye contact might also help you see when someone is lying. According to some researchers, when a person lies, their brain is forced to work harder, which in turn makes the pupils in their eyes widen.
My first memory of noticing someone’s pupils was when I was 11 years old. Our eccentric drama teacher paired each student up with another student whose name they had only just learned that week. So we all sat cross-legged on the floor, facing our partner. Then we had to talk to each other, asking and answering questions without breaking eye contact.
I looked nervously at my partner. I don’t remember her name, but I do remember her face and her eyes very clearly. We both took a deep breath and started talking to each other. After what felt like an hour, but was probably only 20 seconds, we began to relax and enjoy ourselves, laughing when we realised neither of us had blinked for a while.
While the exercise was stressful at the time, I think it has made all other situations where eye contact is involved much easier.
It’s said that Asian cultures don’t place as much emphasis on eye contact as Western cultures. But in my little local supermarket, the eye contact I get from my favourite checkout operators makes their friendliness seem much more genuine. And — having seen the long lines of customers who seek them out — I’m sure I’m not the only one who appreciates this small but significant gesture. (Samantha Loong)