If you want to make me feel ugly, don’t look at me. Avoid making eye contact and look away from me when you are talking to me. The best thing about doing this is that you won’t have to deal with me again. And it’s fair that you don’t look at me, you don’t have to. In fact, it really is the best way to get me to go away, I’m a pretty good single trial learner. I usually won’t come back because I’d rather feel happy than that feeling I get when someone won’t look at me.
The first time I ever told someone that I feel ugly when people won’t look at my face when I’m talking to them, it was to my boss. We were at a company retreat and had just wrapped up a long day of meetings and roll playing. Part of the roll play had been for the entire group to form two circles, one inside the other facing each other and rotate, taking the time to look into each persons eye and think something positive about them. It was a tough exercise because I didn’t know most of the people and found it difficult to think something positive about them. During it, I noticed that some people were not looking at me as I looked at them. In fact, about 10% of the people wouldn’t make eye contact with me at all. At first I thought I understood their issue, it is a difficult task, but as more and more people did it I started to feel kind of crappy. By the end of it I was glad it was over and more than happy to calling it a day.
We all gathered with our respective bosses to have a few drinks and review the day’s progress. When I mentioned to my boss that it made me feel ugly when people wouldn’t make eye contact with me. As a group we discussed it, which gave her the opportunity to reinforce the lesson – look people in the eyes when you talk to them otherwise you have no control over how they perceive the situation. She knew that left to their own devices the situation would be viewed the same way I viewed it, as a negative.
Why would this be the case? Why would I take people not looking at me in a conference as an indication that I was ugly? First off, what is important is that I took it as a negative. It makes sense that I would take it as a negative because there people were deliberately trying to hide their intentions from me. All human beings can cold read others to some degree and the most revealing part of a person is their face. There are more muscles in the face than any other part of the body and the combination of possible movements and positions is enormous. Most of these expressions are meaningless – look at some of the expressions of a young child – but some are universally meaningful – a smile, for example, has a mouth component and an eye component. We can identify someone who is really smiling by looking for a tightening of the muscles around the eyes in an almost squinting position. This is a universal facial expression and studies indicate that people from different countries can identify real smiles and happiness on the faces of people from other countries. Most expressions are like this and we are able to pick up on them almost immediately.
We are pattern-matching creatures so we constantly try to read as many faces as we can to try and interpret the intentions of other people. Our end goal is survival so we are looking for people who have negative or bad intentions. Since the consequence of miss reading ones intentions is harm, we are conditioned to become suspicious of those who do not let us read their faces. My interpretation that others were not looking at me because I was ugly wasn’t necessarily accurate. I was correct in getting a bad feeling from them because they were not letting me read them; I matched a pattern that indicates that someone is trying to prevent me from reading their intentions, a behavior that triggers a negative emotional response to warn me that my survival may be on the line and that I need to avoid these individuals. My belief that they were not looking at me because I was ugly is strong enough to repel me from them thus avoiding the potentially dangerous situation; while it doesn’t necessarily reflect reality, it serves the purpose of removing me from their situation.
It is important to keep in mind here that the emotional system of the body has not adapted to the relative safety that exists in modern society. It is based on conditions that would lead to death if important details were missed when it was critical that the individual be driven to action when certain patterns were matched.
During the discussion with my boss and coworkers about the feelings that were created when someone doesn’t look at me, it became evident that I wasn’t the only person who feels ugly when it happens, but there were others did not feel ugly. My boss, who is a particularly pragmatic individual, admitted that it made her feel unsettled and untrusting of the people, but she did not feel that it had anything to do with her. She believes, and I think correctly, that it revealed more about the character of person who won’t look at you than what they think about you. She and others in the group said that they just couldn’t do business with people who won’t look at them and that they try to avoid these people because they never feel connected to them. What was key was that all of us felt something when people won’t look at us. This type of behavior is important enough a piece of information that we are dialed in to identify it.
If you run a business you BETTER look at me when I’m shopping with you. When you are the seller, you not looking at me doesn’t make me feel ugly, it makes me not trust you. It raises doubt in my mind about you and the value of service that you offer. It makes me question the quality of the products you sell. It makes me think you are a con man because you are not giving me the opportunity to read you. You are, in essence, facilitating the same response in me that the social non-looker does. The difference is, when my money is involved I attribute your actions to some quality you possess vs. some quality that I possess. We are, after all, dealing with something tangible like currency and not esteem.