Thursday, February 13, 2014

What I See

I've been told my eyes dart around when I talk to people, never lingering on their nose or eyes or wherever you're supposed to look, but flicking up, to the side, out the window, watching passers-by, reading signs, watching out. "Look at people when they talk to you," my mother tells me. "Why do you stare out the window in the car instead of looking at me? You have to look at people."

Well, I do. They're just never the right people. Imagine you're talking to someone. You're standing in the middle of the grocery store gabbing away, having just run into some long-lost friend using the mystical power of Face Recognition. What do you see?
I won't tell you, because I don't know. But here's what I see:
There's a traffic jam in the parking lot, and several employees in bright orange vests are directing traffic. I wish I had a bright orange vest. It would be fun to direct traffic. My favorite cereal is on sale–two for one. A bag dispenser in the produce section is almost out. There's that friendly employee, restocking the chips. He's always doing that. How many chips can people eat? A cart is coming down the aisle, a flickering overhead light reflected in its metal. An angry driver leans on his horn outside. The express lane sign says "10 items or fewer", which is good because "10 items or less" is grammatically incorrect. The produce guy has a big knife for cutting the brown ends off celery. Someone's spending a fortune on groceries in lane 4. Is Mother making a disapproving face at me?

Oh, wait. I'm supposed to look at the person talking to me.
Here's what I see now:
A brown spot has taken up residence on their cheek. Am I looking in the right place? People's noses are boring. Am I staring? Is Mother still making a disapproving face? I try to remember some detail of the shape of their nose, their eyes, their chin– it slips away as soon as my eyes do. I look past them at the traffic directors. Can they tell? Probably. I pull my eyes back to their thoroughly ordinary-looking nose. The need to look around–to know exactly where I am and what surrounds me–grows until it's almost painful. I remind myself that successful engineers have good social skills. There are no spiky crushers on the grocery store ceiling. Spiky crushers do not exist, except in video games. There are other things that fall on you from the ceiling, that paranoid part of me argues, the part that tells me to get behind something when a car drives by, in case they're looking for someone to shoot at. (I really have no idea where that part came from. Nobody has ever been shot at while walking up our street.) I hear a cart creaking behind me. If I turn around to look, Mother will make a disapproving face. In the car, she'll tell me again: "You have to look at people when they talk." And I'll look out the window and admire the scenery, and watch for rogue garbage trucks*, and tell her I'll try.

And I am trying. I'm getting better at looking at people, though I don't think it's improving my face recognition skills, or providing any useful social insights. I try because I've been told that flicking your eyes around–furtive eye movement, when you want a negative connotation–makes you look dishonest. Because I want to be a spacecraft engineer, and nobody will hire someone who twists around to look behind them at every noise. Because maybe if I look at people's faces, eventually I'll start picking out the little details that apparently tell you how they're feeling. But looking at people is hard, especially when there's so many other, more interesting things to look at. So if one day you meet someone whose eyes dart around, looking everywhere but at your face, don't think "They're not paying attention." Maybe they are. Maybe you've run into someone like me, who looks at everything, not just your face.

*I have a problem with garbage trucks. When I was little my room faced an alley across our street where, every Wednesday at some ungodly hour of the morning, a huge garbage truck would come charging along, looking as if it was about to crash through my window until it turned onto the street proper. I have less of a problem with recycling and yardwaste trucks, but they're all too big and noisy.