Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Eye Contact. Or not. (That Perspective Thing, Again.)

After spending countless months transitioning from mom to entrepreneur, I finally decided to take a friend up on her suggestion to read a certain book series. Not for greater intellectual development, nor another, “how-to do this, that, and everything else,” read, but reading just for fun. And I’m so glad I did. What started out as picking up one book to read over winter break turned into hunting down an entire series.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith have been such pleasant, quick and easy reads. And as someone keenly interested in the concept of “perspective”, the cultural differences from my own, stressed throughout the book, have given me much to think about. Namely, eye contact.

As an AsperMom, I’m all too familiar with the emphasis my present culture places on that thing called “eye contact”. We’ve had school and family complain how our daughter lacks it, and how that is a…problem. It’s also part of Asperger’s and quite frankly, in my not so humble opinion, there are bigger goals for her to reach than looking someone in the eye. Like grades. Or getting along with others. When to keep her thoughts inside, and when to express them. To learn how to live on her own.

But I digress.

I’m good at that.

Alexander McCall Smith’s series is set in Botswana, and he reflects on certain cultural expectations of the main character, Mma Ramotswe. One, in particular, had me. He writes of children and how they approach adults – with their eyes downward. Eye contact from a child to an adult is considered a sign of disrespect.

I mentioned it to Kristina, and she smiled. She abhors eye contact. It bothers her to no end. The thought that another culture discourages children from using it when greeting an adult made her feel…relieved.

To be honest, I am no expert on how eye contact is seen from culture to culture. But the thought that eye contact is not a universal social rule was…eye opening. (Bad puns, I know. They happen.)

Why is it that we spend so much time and energy teaching our kids to conform to social norms that, in the grand scheme of things, vary with the wind? How confusing is it to repeatedly practice “look me in the eye!” – only to visit another culture, and tell our aspie to disregard that “rule” for a moment?

Gosh, I’d love to devote time and energy to understanding all this. To further understanding of all of this. Of cultures. Of social rules. Of Asperger’s trying to make heads or tails of it all.

What do you think? Doesn’t it often seem that we make things more complicated and complex than they need to be? How often do we (unknowingly, even) "force" our culture on another, instead of making a conscious choice to understand it, instead? At the end of the day, what is it that really, truly matters as we interact with one another? And how confusing it all must be to our kids.


  1. It's a double-edged sword, Julie. And no worse than trying to help our children understand language.

    Our children must learn social customs (and language) to be accepted -- yet social customs are probably one of the most difficult (and changeable) things to learn.

    Since our daughter is still getting her grasp on language, my husband and I often muse about the subtleties of it. We tell her to chew her food and we cheerfully point out the choo-choo train coming down the tracks. Trees have leaves, but they can't move... so they never really leave the spot they're in.

    It is confusing, but that's a part of being human. We are complex creatures and the constructs we create are complex (and often beautiful) things.

    Sorry to go on and on in the comments, but I guess your post really struck me today. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. Thanks so much for your comments! And never apologize for the length of them - they are very much appreciated! :)