Careful! Who are you not looking at?

IMG_4748Did you go to a meeting and find that no one looked at you? Did you feel excluded? If you are a woman, did you go with a man and feel like the entire conversation was between the two men? Do you have a colleague who will never look at you? How does it make you feel in an academic setting when you are visually excluded? Do you find yourself looking at the person who speaks the most, not at the quieter person also there?

We humans are supremely conscious of gaze. We watch your gaze. We see where you are looking. There are few ways as powerful for making someone feel left out than to exclude them from your attention. But it is usually done unconsciously. Try to learn to notice and look at those around you, at the quiet person in the group. No one wants to be invisible in this way.

Maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about. Here are some examples. I had a colleague at my former institution who would sometimes serve on the same committees. He never looked at me, even when he talked to me. He looked freely at male colleagues.  Was he shy, or did my opinions not matter?

Recently, I was interviewed along with a male colleague. At the beginning of the interview, the reporter’s gaze went only to my colleague. Gradually she balanced her gaze, looking at me nearly as much as she looked at him. No doubt the whole thing is unconscious, so try to think about whom you are looking at when you are talking to more than one person.

Even more recently I hovered, waiting to meet a new person on my campus. He was talking to someone else, but it was an event where he was supposed to meet people. I waited and felt the quickest of gazes, as I was probably assessed and deemed worthy of ignoring. He was most likely unconscious of the whole process. I gave it another minute and left. I hope I don’t also do that to people, but I bet it takes thinking about to avoid.

So, remember to catch the eye of everyone in a conversation group, to be inclusive. You might learn something from someone who otherwise would remain silent.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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