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.
Recently I saw a question on an improv FB group, tips on how to be “in the moment”. Among the repeated answers was, eye contact. “Eye contact, eye contact, eye contact.” Maintain eye contact. I see where it’s coming from. But I don’t 100% subscribe to this myself. Blasphemous to say, I BREAK eye contact aaaall the time. And to me, it does not take me out of, it actually helps me BEING in the moment. This is quite antithesis to canonical improv knowledge, at least improv developed in the Western world. I’m wondering if my Eastern upbringing has anything to do with it (or maybe, I’m just pushing my East/West agenda again. You’ll see.).
To recap. For many improvisers, eye contact is one of the most important tools to connect with a partner. You both are able to read offers fully. Yet most of all, both players feel they are working together building the scene. Like colleagues.
Like colleagues.. of equal status. That may be the fine point.
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:
This is an uncomfortable scene. Gordon Ramsay in Hell’s Kitchen is obviously high-status, and a dominating nasty one at that. The sheer directness of the gaze from the high-status forces the low-status to break eye contact in a primitive primate way (note: when facing a mountain gorilla, look down to let them establish dominance). But do we really want to be a high-status jerk?
We should strive to do better. I think in a healthier relationship, it is the HIGH STATUS who breaks eye contact. See this scene between high-status Gandalf and low-status Frodo:
What is noticeably different here, is that Gandalf and Frodo are on a healthy, friendly relationship. Yet Gandalf breaks eye contact. Frodo, meanwhile, is seeking eye contact without being afraid.
What is status, anyway? Status is who affect whom. The person with high status affects the low status more than the other way around. In this scene, Gandalf is high, breaking eye contact, in deep thoughts about the fate of Middle Earth — a matter bigger than Frodo. Frodo is low, asking for guidance what to do with the Ring. Gandalf can break eye contact by choice because he is less affected by Frodo. Roughly speaking, Gandalf can ignore Frodo, but Frodo cannot ignore Gandalf. The high status has the FREEDOM to make OR break eye contact with the low status. Meanwhile, the low status has to always pay attention to the high status.
Another use for a high status is to initiate eye contact. Because high status has the freedom to look away, the moment they use eye contact it becomes meaningful. It comes for instance during a teaching moment, where the high status exerts soft power. A friendly high status eye contact will make the low status want to connect and not look away (unlike aggression). Let’s see this example from Lord of the Rings, when Frodo regrets his choice.
Again, Gandalf is high status and Frodo is low status.
(Gandalf: looks away, voluntarily)
(Frodo: looks away, forced by shame)
Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
(Gandalf: initiates eye contact)
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
In movies, breaking eye contact is already used very well. And in life also very much a survival or social skill.
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.
But isn’t there waiters everywhere? I would argue this same interaction would be a little different in the West. When I first arrive in the West, waiters (especially the famously equal-status Dutch) would initiate eye contact. If I still need to read the menu, the waiters wouldn’t wait for my initiation, they would just leave. In the States, waiters would chat me up, or even bend down to put their eye on the same level of mine for better eye contact. Because these patron-waiter interactions have a more equal footing in status.
After living in the West for 20 years, I found it jarring, to be honest, when I am back in Asia and get the same high-low status in every interaction. This is the usual interaction I have with chaffeurs/Uber drivers in Asia, like this from the movie Parasite:
The rich woman sitting in the back safely ignores the chaffeur who is low status in the beginning of the movie (see figure above.)
A very interesting storyline in the movie Parasite, by the way (*spoilers*), is that the driver is slowly taking control over the rich family. Award-winning director Bong Joon-Ho uses subtlety by using how they interact, among others who has control over the eye contact. At the end of the interaction, it is the chaffeur who has the freedom to make eye contact. Meanwhile the rich woman, now low status, has to break eye contact forced by fear (see figure below). This is one of the great perspective change you see from movies by a non-Western director (especially the great Bong Joon-Ho who manages to inject culture into movies in very nuanced ways).
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.
For a long time learning improv, I follow the adage of “eye contact, eye contact, eye contact.” It was taught that way so you get lost in your partner eyes and feel their feelings. But in an Asian society, unless you are friends of equal status, looking each other in the eyes for a lengthy amount of time feels somewhat confrontational.
Instead, often the high status breaks eye contact to relieve the pressure it exerts upon the low status.
That makes looking away more natural for me for playing high status. Plus, what makes me feel more high-status than being able to tune-out your partner? (not that I am ignoring my partner completely, but just having the ability to look away). I cannot fully be high status if I don’t break eye contact now and then. And I cannot fully be low status if I am not constantly paying attention waiting for that eye contact. So to me personally, playing a high-low status scene but with constant eye contact feels playing fake.
It is only after I break the mold of “eye contact” from Western improv, do I feel playing improv more naturally. And this comes from cultural backgrounds. That’s why I think you always need to adapt your lessons to your students’ cultural background, and not just feed the same philosophy rigidly. It is why we have a more enriching experience when we also watch Parasite and movies from Asian directors, or have improv teachers from another cultural background.
Status in Western and Eastern Improv