If a Picture’s Worth More Than a Thousand Words…You’re Using the Wrong Words

“Eye contact is way more intimate than words will ever be.” – Faraaz Kazi

Eye contact carries staggering weight with just about everyone. You can say “I love you,” “I hate you,” and “I’m so bored—let’s get out of here!” with a simple look. Indeed, if you don’t make eye contact with the person you’re talking to, it’s not only abnormal—it’s rude, in some cultures anyway.

Upon meeting a good friend for the first time, I was, of course, unable to make eye contact with her. The best I could do was turn my face toward her, and look as alert and interested as I could without using my eyes. I don’t have any control whatsoever over my eye movements; my eyes are always looking everywhere and nowhere all at once. During this particular meeting, I was seated with my folded cane beside me. It wasn’t in full view, so my friend had no idea I was blind. She later confided that she had thought I must have been very shy. “I was so frustrated,” she said, “because you wouldn’t look at me. I was like, ‘Hey, look over here, damn it!’ and wondering what you were thinking. It was really bugging me.”

I’d always known that eye contact was important, but I’d never had it put to me quite that way. It was vaguely disconcerting, as though I’d committed some grievous social faux pas without knowing it. I started to wonder how many others had assumed I was shy, evasive, or impolite. How many times would my meaning have been better conveyed through a simple look? How often were my words, even when carefully chosen, insufficient?

I’ve learned to live with the fact that I’ll never achieve eye contact, but it still irks me, especially since I’m so cognizant of how it could improve my communication skills. I am a professional communicator, after all. And, as always, it’s the little things that get to me. Let’s say a stranger comes into the elevator with me, and I’m too shy to make small talk. It would be nice to simply make eye contact and smile. I use the same facial expressions as everyone else, of course, but I don’t have as much control over them as I’d like. To this day, I’ve never really mastered the fake smile; I just end up looking as though I’m about to commit unspeakable evil. That, or I look painfully awkward. I’ve even been told I suffer from resting bitch face, even though I’m a relatively cheerful person. How nice it would be to show friendliness without having to chatter pointlessly about the weather! (Then again, weather in Alberta is often a legitimate conversation piece.)

I won’t pretend the big things don’t matter, though, even if they don’t nag at me quite as often. I have been judged harshly in numerous musical competitions because I didn’t make eye contact with the audience. Apparently, this is the only meaningful way to connect emotionally with the crowd. The jury’s out on that one. I even had one judge approach me after I’d won second place, saying, “If you’d just looked at us or something, you’d have won.” Gee, thanks. Even when adjudicators are fully aware of my eye condition, they’ll still mark me down, partly because they aren’t conscious of how biased they are in favour of people who can make eye contact when necessary. This would happen even during classical competitions, where visual expressiveness should be less significant than in, say, musical theatre. Oddly enough, I’m far better at theatre than I ever was at classical performance, but I digress.

There’s more to it, of course. My loved ones all know how I feel about them, and I know how they feel about me, too. Nevertheless, I’ve always felt a twinge when someone says “You should see how he was looking at you!” or “I don’t think she appreciated what you were saying to her. She was giving you ‘the look’.” I am told that I have very expressive eyes, so I’m sure I give myself away a lot. But, more than control over my own eyes, I want knowledge of what others are saying with theirs. People don’t always bother to verbalize how they’re feeling. There have been times when someone was giving me a furious glare, an encouraging smile, or a warning glance…and of course it all went whooshing over my head. It’s true that people should probably remember to tell me what they’re thinking rather than staring at me, but it’s so engrained that most people forget.

I take issue with the idea that a look is far, far more expressive than a word, though. I have heard exceptional tenderness and pure venom in words, and I can hardly imagine something more intimate and expressive than that. I recognize that I don’t know what I’m missing, to some extent, so my understanding is very limited. However, people frequently underestimate the power of words and auditory cues because they simply don’t value them as highly. It’s much easier to look at someone than it is to search for the words that will express the same feeling. So, people naturally opt for the easier, quicker route. I would like to think that the words I say matter at least as much as the look you’re giving me. I don’t think I could tolerate a reality where my words don’t matter because I can’t look at you while I’m saying them.
Is it possible that looks are only more effective than words because they are convenient? A look, after all, is free of language barriers. It means the same to most anyone in the world. (Of course, there are exceptions: direct eye contact in Japan means something different than direct eye contact in America.) It is also much harder to mess up a look than a word. It’s easier to say the wrong thing than smile in the wrong way.

Perhaps it is not the fault of the words at all. Perhaps words are inadequate for the simple reason that the average person isn’t used to using them. Perhaps—dare I say it—people have chosen to value looks over words. If I’m right, and it is a choice, then maybe it would be possible to turn things around? Would it be possible to convince people that words are powerful tools—at least as powerful as eye contact? Maybe, maybe not. At this point, I just don’t know. But it’s an intriguing thought, isn’t it?

Maybe a picture is worth more than a thousand words … because you’re using the wrong words.