Breaking Eye Contact and Playing Status

Eye contact is important. I argue that breaking eye contact is even more important — whether you break eye contact by force or by choice, determines your status. But at the end of the day, it is a cultural thing.

Scene from Captain Phillips: Forcing eye contact is a high-status move.

Status

How does eye contact affect STATUS? I think breaking eye contact actually says more about status. Whether you break eye contact by force or by choice determines your status. The one who breaks eye contact by force is the low status. The one who breaks eye contact by choice is the high status.

Whether you break eye contact by force or by choice determines your status.

It’s too simplistic to frame “eye contact = high-status, look away = low-status”. This happens only during AGGRESSION. To illustrate, this aggression by Gordon Ramsay:

In a hostile interaction, the low status is forced to break eye contact
In a friendly interaction, the high status breaks eye contact by choice

Eastern culture

This is even more apparent in the Eastern world. When I was in Asia, there are very many interactions where we are keenly aware of status inequality. For instance, when an upper class patron (high status) interacts with a waiter (low status) in a restaurant. The patron takes their pretty time perusing the menu. The waiter has to stand there and watch, be ready for eye contact. The patron can initiate the eye contact at any moment they wish or ignore the waiter and break eye contact to look at the menu. In a way, the waiter is SO low status that a menu is higher priority for the patron.

Scene from Parasite. High status in the back seat can initiate contact anytime they like.
Scene from Parasite. Flipping the status. The driver now has the high status.

Improv

So back to IMPROV and the advice for “eye contact, eye contact, eye contact”, I think this is quite a Western-centric viewpoint. I think maintaining constant eye contact is more true for colleagues of equal status. Being brought up in Asia, however, status awareness is ingrained in me — despite being outside Asia for a long-ass time. But I think this gives me a different perspective.

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On Cloud Nine

An Impro Neuf blog. Evolving thoughts on improv from Aree Witoelar, teacher/founder of Impro Neuf International in Oslo, Norway.