Don’t Look Now


“Good eye contact” is entirely overrated. “Look at me when I’m talkin’ to you!” Why? What if I’m one of the 50% of people who process information auditorially, rather than visually, and looking at you just distracts me from what you’re saying? What if I grew up in another culture, where staring directly at my interlocutor [particularly one higher in the pecking order] is the height of bad manners? Even in our own military, when standing to Attention, one is taught to stare “into middle distance,” not into the eyes of the Big Wig addressing one, even when answering questions. In the Navy, it is called “keeping one’s eyes in the boat.” [One is also taught to speak in the third–not second–person: “Would the Admiral care for…?”]

And don’t get me started on prey animals–such as horses–one is handling. Direct eye contact is an amygdalar trigger, provoking “highly inconvenient” reactions, ranging from bolting away to charging the handler. [Remember the Spanish Riding School scenario? Probably started with a stare.] Seasoned stable lads [a unisex term], equine vets, and farriers know to avert their gaze when approaching a horse, as if it were a Roman Senator. [Trivia question: Which emperor was deposed for appointing his horse, Incitatus, a Consul?]

Predators know the fierce power of a direct stare, and use it strategically. Dog spies rabbit; fixes it with a stare; and rabbit [most likely] freezes, at least momentarily. Think back to the dog fights in Top Gun, where the prey jet is “painted” with the laser of the predator, indicating “I’ve got you in my sights now. You’re toast.” Back in the 1920s, before eye contact was considered an Altogether Good Thing, there was a New Yorker cartoon, with two women walking past a man in the street: “He gave me such a look!” The joke is that she is feigning indignation, while secretly enjoying being “in his sights.”

Let’s consider the hard-done-by black & white dog in Dr. Range’s experiment on Inequity Aversion. We know he is angry at the injustice of his pal [Black & Tan] continuing to receive a reward for giving a paw, while he gets bupkes, nowt, Nichts! He demonstrates his displeasure by going on strike [no longer giving his paw], and by averting his gaze–not just from Black & Tan, but also from the experimenter. What’s up with that? Here’s my theory. Like Conrad in the Santa Rita jail, he knows he is “just a number here,” and Black & Tan is “just a number here.” It is not really Black & Tan’s fault that The Man [a unisex term] is being arbitrary and unfair. His beef is actually with The Man, who is the established Pack Leader. [Remember, this is the Clever Dog Lab–ain’t no slow learners here.] Back in the world [as GIs used to say in ‘Nam], he would be able express his anger in a number of ways: attacking The Man [fight], high-tailing it out of there [flight], or going into the “suspended animation” state which Object Relations Theorists call Somnolent Detachment. Here, his options are limited. Attacking The Man is not a clever move, since the Pack Leader is the source of basic rations, not just treats. So, to lessen his temptation to do so, he avoids “fixing The Man in his sights.” If his amygdala is really ramped up, he may actually go into Somnolent Detachment. When human infants do this, they “stare right past” their caregiver, as if she weren’t even there.

This is Crazy-Like-a-Fox behavior: the lesser of two evils. “If you slight me, I’ll ignore you. You have more power than me, but you don’t own my spirit [soul, what have you].” It is a gutsy move, whether you are a clever dog at the University of Vienna, or a PoW near the River Kwai. One has to do it with enough dignity and Stoicism, NOT to be mistaken for a Lame Gazelle. This little dog’s sit-down strike and averted gaze carries the subtext message: “I am not your victim, but I am not your enemy.”

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Filed under Epictetus said..., ethology, lesser of two evils, limbic system, semiotics

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