Everyone has experienced the gnawing, cheek-reddening, stomach-clenching discomfort of awkward eye contact. It is a misfortune of everyday life: walking down the Mall and accidentally locking eyes with a stranger; staring off into space during class and realizing you were glaring at a bewildered classmate; typing an essay on the third floor of Braniff, gazing around the room for inspiration and staring dead into the eyes of an intimidating English professor. It happens every day, and sadly it is almost certainly unavoidable.
Disregard the comment on our society that we can face anything in a text message or social media post, but can’t bear to look one another in the eye. Here is a helpful strategy for getting through your next awkward eye contact encounter without emotional trauma.
Step One: Do not look away too quickly. This will automatically make the situation far more awkward than it needs to be. It gives the impression that you were looking at them intentionally, and are now abashed that you have been caught. It will make the other person suspicious as to why you were looking at them as well. Suddenly he becomes very self-conscious and confused. “Is there something in my teeth?” he will ask himself. “Is my shirt on backwards again? Did I cut that guy off in the cafeteria?” Maintain eye contact just a little while longer and move on to step two.
Step Two: React. This is your moment to diffuse any tension or awkwardness. You must now convince the other party that you were not staring at them intentionally. One way to do this that may not appeal to more scrupulous readers is to very subtly lie. Give a start, shake your head, jolt quickly, do anything to give the impression that you have only just become aware that you have been looking at her — and do it in such a way that she will notice. If you are morally opposed to such a pretense, you might have to resort to actually speaking to the person, explaining the situation. Imagine! The very thought makes me shudder. (In this case, skip step three.)
Step Three: Smile apologetically. Time to muster your courage, buckle down and acknowledge the other person. You were obviously not staring at them on purpose. You have made that clear. Regardless, staring is still impolite, and this is your chance to give the impression that you are a decent, normal, socially functional human being. The apologetic smile is a good-natured turning of the mouth that often is accompanied by a sort of furrowing of the brows. The bold may even embellish it with a slight laugh, or a mouthing of the word “sorry”. If you have no idea what I mean, or your face simply does not bend that way, any other suitably apologetic gesture is acceptable.
Step Four: Keep calm and carry on. You are almost there, and now it is time for the strong finish. Calmly and confidently resume going about your business. Look away, back toward your destination, your book or your essay, and do not — I repeat do not — look back at the other person. Gather your wits, make a show of busyness or of intense concentration and make sure that the other party knows you have put him out of your mind. This is the finishing touch to convey the message that you were not staring at him to be rude, or because there is something wrong with him or because you are stalking him.
There you have it: awkwardness avoided in four easy steps. And if you are ever on the receiving end of an awkward stare, please think of yourself in this situation, and give others the benefit of the doubt. We are all, after all, trying our best to stay afloat in a sea of social niceties and cultural subtleties. The least we can do is help one another out and not let everyday situations escalate to uncomfortable awkwardness.