See yourself in my shades
You’ll never know if I’m looking the other way
– Animal Bag

One of the major deficits of autism is the lack of eye contact. “If patients with autism are talking to you, not only do they not look at your face, they may even turn their face in the other direction to avoid any contact,” said Dr. Sirigu.

In addition to the unusual memory that I mentioned recently, one of the things that made me wonder if I might be somewhere on the mild end of the autism spectrum was the fact that I’ve never been able to maintain eye contact. Even among people I’ve known for years, it’s all I can do to make occasional glances to their eyes. It’s a feeling akin to trying to stare into a searchlight. In fact, the only time I can make sustained eye contact is when I’m not the one talking, and even then, I can only do it by essentially vacating my head, sort of like when you’re daydreaming, and your eyes are fixed on a certain spot without you being conscious of what you’re looking at. So I’m afraid partners in face-to-face conversation have to choose between me not looking at them or not really hearing them. Sorry, y’all.
But long before I ever heard that there could be a biological reason for it, I had been intrigued by reading that some cultures made a virtue out of not staring in someone’s face. Tony Hillerman in Skinwalkers:
Janet Pete was studying Chee’s face. It was a habit that Chee had learned slowly, and come to tolerate slowly, and that still sometimes made him uneasy. Another of those cultural differences that Mary found odd and exotic.
(“That first month or so in class I was always saying: ‘Look at me when I talk to you,’ and the kids simply wouldn’t do it. They would always look at their hands, or the blackboard, or anywhere except looking me in the face. And finally one of the other teachers told me it was a cultural thing. They should warn us about things like that. Odd things. It makes the children seem evasive, deceptive.” And Chee had said something about it not seeming odd or evasive to him. It seemed merely polite. Only the rude peered into one’s face during a conversation…)
Janet Pete was reading his nonverbal signals. Rude, Chee thought. No wonder Navajos rated it as bad manners. It invaded the individual’s privacy.
Makes perfect sense to me. Maybe I’m a long-lost Navajo. But as long as I’m stranded here among the belegana, forced to rely on dark or mirrored sunglasses to ward off prying eyes, I have to wonder why it is that humans don’t have the natural aversion to prolonged eye contact that so many other animals do. Is this a particular cultural value that somehow got normalized by Westerners? I’ve never seen any studies that approached the topic from this angle.