Look Me In the Eyes

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario. Here’s this week’s!

In downtown London, England, the city government has installed padding on the lampposts so that texters don’t bash themselves while walking and texting at the same time. Tokyo has painted footprints on the sidewalk to direct texters where to walk. I’m sure chiropractors will be pretty busy over the next few decades dealing with all the people who spend their days texting, chins bowed against their chests.
All too many of us have adopted the habit, but that can’t be good for your spine.

As a society, we have forgotten how to look up. We have forsaken eye contact in favour of paying attention to such all-important text messages as “wassup?”. We’re spending all our time communicating inanities with all our pseudo-acquaintances, rather than smiling at strangers. That little bit of courtesy that brightens people’s days is becoming all too scarce.

I often see teens outside the local high school during breaks, texting nonstop, while simultaneously chatting. Some believe this is a badge of multi-tasking honour. I wonder, though, about what kind of relationships are being formed, when one is never giving 100% of one’s attention to another human being? How does this bode for future relationships? Will our children grow up to be able to look their spouse in the eye when they rarely look anyone in the eye now? Not just that, but are we losing the ability to pay attention to one individual at a time, if conversations in real time have to be punctuated by checking for new text messages?

Tuesday nights are our technology free family nights. No computers, no televisions, just our family, huddled around the table, playing board games. I have to admit I didn’t really want to participate this week, because I was busy. But we had decided at the beginning of the year that nothing would interfere with family night, and so I took a deep breath and shut down my computer. And I have not laughed as hard in a long time. That night, while playing the Game of Life, I landed on the square which required me to shell out $5000 to decorate the nursery, even though I spent the rest of the game driving around the board without ever actually having a child. I held out hope for the twins, but it was all for nothing. Nothing, that is, except a new inside joke in our family, and tons of laughter, culminating with various individuals falling out of chairs.

It’s that same atmosphere that makes me love family dinners—minus the falling out of chairs part, of course. When we sit down, even if it’s just for ten or fifteen minutes, we all connect. Looking straight into my loved ones’ faces, I see any tiredness that’s there. I detect sadness. I can see excitement or triumph. And we share and laugh. How can this happen if people bring cell phones or iPods to the table? You’re not connecting. You’re ignoring, even if there is conversation going on.

We are losing the ability to look people in the eyes, and as we do that, we give the message that “I only pay attention to what is important to me. And you are not important.” Modern communication seems to have little to do with common courtesy, or kindness, or respect anymore; it is simply about entertainment and my own personal desires. That makes for an extremely selfish society.

Yes, cell phones and iPods are fun. But it’s ever so much more rewarding to spend time with real, live people, eye to eye. Let’s not forget that, and let’s make sure our loved ones are forced, at least during some of the day, to look us straight in the eye.

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