The last word
Look at me. Look at me.
Connie Cronley, Iron Gate executive director, with guests Tony, Margaret and Rodney (front).
1. Laurence Olivier said that when he made a stage entrance, he imagined himself carrying a pink umbrella. He thought that helped call the audience’s attention to him. That’s because actors want people to look at them when they’re on stage.
2. When television was becoming popular, white shirts created a glare, so men were asked to wear pastel dress shirts. Soon, lots of men were wearing pastel dress shirts so that other people would think that they, too, were appearing on television.
3. I like the joke about a redneck’s last words: “Hey, watch this!”
4. I hate Facebook.
What do these four things have in common? Some vague theory I’m developing about our desperate need for attention. We are so far beyond a celebrity culture; that seems as antiquated as women in ancient Greece collecting the perspiration of famous gladiators. Or as primitive as eating the flesh of fierce warriors.
No, what we’re after now is individual celebrity. Not just 15 minutes of fame but daily, constant chattering, clamoring for attention like a 2-year-old child.
When I caved into peer pressure and signed up on Facebook, one of the first messages was from a person reporting to everybody, “I just ate a peanut butter sandwich and am going to bed.”
This stop-the-presses report cooled me forever on Facebook. Or, perhaps, it implanted the fear that I, too, would succumb to such innocuous posts. This is the opposite of a lesson I learned the hard way: Two things not to do after drinking too much wine are trim your own hair or e-mail people what you’re really thinking.
Brooding over this craving to be in the public eye led me to thinking about eye contact in general and its complexities — the different connotations, implications and plain-old misunderstandings. There’s even a polysyllabic word for the study of eye contact in nonverbal communication: oculesics.
Supposedly, when my cat looks at me and blinks slowly, it means that she loves me. But if I blink slowly at another human, it means that I’m either disinterested or sleepy. Whereas if I blink excessively, it could mean that I’m flirting, stressed or lying. Or, I suppose, all of the above.
Not making eye contact could mean lying, too, or guilt. I think of this when I’m trying to explain something to somebody and look away to gather my thoughts. “Uh, oh,” I remind myself and snap back to eye contact so sincere it’s bug-eyed. This is equally disconcerting to the other person. No wonder I find myself often misunderstood.
It’s hard work, eye contact. Looking too long at someone — akin to staring — can be rude, creepy or threatening, as in, “What are you looking at?”
Unless we smile when we look at the other person, which can be interpreted as friendly. Unless we’re in France, where smiling at someone we don’t know suggests to the reserved French that we are simpletons.
Eye contact in other cultures can mean entirely other things. In an Argentine tango club, a woman stares at a man to convey, “Ask me to dance. And I mean only dance.” Whereas in Japan, a woman who does not make eye contact can be considered polite and proper. Same thing for some traditional American Indians and for a couple of ex-cons I know.
My day job is at a soup kitchen, where I learned that homeless people say one of the most painful things about being homeless is becoming invisible. People don’t look at them. Maybe the people think they will embarrass the homeless. Maybe they’re afraid they will be asked for money. Strangers look away or even cross the street to avoid the homeless.
So I started taking photographs of the people who eat at the soup kitchen, but always with their permission. We put the pictures on the bulletin board. We print the photos in newsletters and brochures and run them in our online eNews. It’s our way of saying, “We see you. You’re a person.”
Sometimes the homeless ask for a copy of the photo to send to a mother for a holiday, to a fiancé in prison or to friends far away.
Sometimes they want the photo for themselves. Same reason we all want pictures of ourselves. It’s not look-at-me ego. The photo reminds us: I’m here.