I used to have good, if not great, eye contact when talking to people. That skill could be traced all the way back to middle school and high school when I always got high marks for good eye contact with my audience during graded speeches. When talking to people I tried really hard to make good eye contact to be respectful and professional. My dad worked in a professional setting in the banking industry and I think I just absorbed the importance of a firm handshake and maintaining good eye contact when talking to others.
But that level of good eye contact slowly started to go away after my spinal cord injury. Immediately after my diving accident I was put in traction to stabilize my neck, and was equally restrained flat on my back for a few weeks after that in recovery from my neck fusion surgery, so I could only make eye contact with people if they leaned over my hospital bed and looked straight down at me. When I was in physical rehab in the hospital for the next few months I had so many medical personnel coming and going to check my vitals, take blood samples, etc. that I mostly ignored them and stared at the TV instead.
But where my former good level of eye contact really started to taper off was when I returned home from rehab and started working with home health aides in the mornings every day. When people are helping me with things like range of motion on my legs, dressing, things in the bathroom, and transfers from bed to wheelchair and vice versa I am working in very close proximity with them. As in, our faces are frequently within a few feet and even a few inches from each other off and on for a few hours at a time. Talk about extreme close ups. So when I am that close to someone that is working for me maintaining strict eye contact from that close of a distance can be very weird. It’s too intimate. Having that level of close, intimate eye contact with someone who is less than six inches from your face is only not weird when it is with loved ones or a boyfriend/girlfriend/partner, in my opinion.
That said, more often than not I found myself staring off into the distance, at the ceiling, etc. instead of in their eyes while we were talking. Accordingly, that practice started to slowly permeate into the rest of my lifestyle, and next thing I knew, I was executing poor eye contact during conversation with most people on a frequent basis. It just sort of snow balled from there over the years.
I’m still really good at looking people in the eye while they are talking to me, but when it’s my turn to talk back I find myself habitually looking either down or off in the distance. The worst part about it is that I’m always aware of it and it bothers me every time because it makes me look aloof or uninterested in the conversation. But I’ve found it to be a tough habit to break.
I find that I can turn it on when I really need to, like during job interviews or when I meet important people. But it bothers me that it doesn’t seem to come naturally to me anymore, even during conversations with people that I am close, like family members. The most effective two-way conversational eye contact that I’ve had in the over 16 years since my SCI was with my last girlfriend because she has the most gorgeous eyes that I’ve ever seen. Maintaining great eye contact with her came naturally because I could never get enough of seeing those bright, pretty eyes. Apparently, nice eyes is the game changer.
So it sounds strange to say that my SCI lifestyle has played the most significant role in taking away the good two-way eye contact that I had pre-SCI, but like many things that this lifestyle has taken away from me it’s just the truth in my case. But now that almost three years of fruitless job searching has finally lead to five legal employment opportunities over the past nine months, with reserved confidence that I will just keep getting similar work going forward; I am in settings where executing good, consistent eye contact is important. I’ve been making it my mission over the past year or so to get back to that elite level of good eye contact I once had. And with enough effort and practice I will eventually get there once again.
Photo source: *clarity*