When I was studying English literature at university some twenty years ago, I took an optional module called ‘Varieties of English’. Looking at some of the many different forms of my mother tongue around the globe, it explored communication in numerous guises, touching on everything from swearing to body language.
I don’t remember much about those sessions now. One thing that did stick with me, however, was an observation about varying norms for the use of eye contact during conversations in different regions. In the UK, the lecturer explained, standard practice was for the listener to look fairly constantly at the person speaking, while the speaker looked around the room returning every few seconds to make brief eye contact.
If we Brits found ourselves talking to someone who didn’t look at us enough when we were speaking, we were likely to feel ignored. By contrast, if we entered into conversation with someone who looked at us all the time, we could feel rather uncomfortable (this, the lecturer suggested, could be one reason for the cliched British perception that, for example, Germans are serious and intense: in Germany, the unwritten eye-contact rules specified much more direct eye contact from speakers).
In the early weeks of the UK lockdown, I saw a number of posts on social media lamenting the absence of eye contact between strangers in the street. Many of us, it seemed, were playing the Londoner’s trick (observable in every packed Tube carriage once upon a time) of trying to make everyone else disappear by refusing to acknowledge their existence. (On the flip-side, I have to say I also observed an upswing in the number of friendly smiles I got while out running – possibly as a result of my own conscious efforts to buck the eye-contact self-isolation trend).
As the lockdown passes into a medium-term proposition, however, more changes in the way we look at one another seem to be afoot. With many verbal communications with those outside our households now taking place over video call, new patterns in the way we talk to one another are setting in. We are getting more used to contending with lapses in signal and the occasional pixellated image. It is becoming mundane to glimpse the interiors of co-workers’ and acquaintances’ homes. But perhaps most significantly of all, we are making a habit of talking at length with people who don’t make eye contact with us.
It would feel highly unnatural for most of us to stare into the camera when we listen. Instead, we tend to watch the screen with the result that, when the person talking checks in for the eye contact they would expect in a face-to-face conversation, they are confronted with an image of someone looking down or off to the side – traditionally (in the UK, at least) a sign that the listener is being rude, shifty or not paying attention.
It makes me wonder what impact this adjustment in communication mores will have if and when we are able to step out from behind our screens and interact in person once more. Will this new set of protocols remain in the virtual world or will it seep into real-life discourse? Will those of us used to talking to people who don’t seem to be looking at us find ourselves cowed and disconcerted when our interlocutors turn their gazes on us once more? Will the strangeness that I’m sure many of us will feel when we eventually see our friends and family face to face be exacerbated by an unpreparedness to meet one another’s eyes?