My seven year old son came home from school recently with a list of things he had learned about in his Life Skills course throughout the year. Considering these are skills being taught to a second grade class, one would think adults have already mastered everything on this list. But one particular item happened to grab my attention- eye contact. Apparently, the students were taught that when one speaks to another person, it is important to look that person in the eye, to make eye contact.
I have a chavrusa who likes to point out that one of the most beautiful aspects of our Torah is that in addition to the myriads of halachos contained within, the Torah also teaches us how to live like a mentch and how to interact with those around us in a respectful way.
In the well known Mishna in Pirkei Avos, Shamai teaches us that we must greet everyone with a pleasant countenance. Similarly, the Mishna later in Pirkei Avos charges us to always be the first to greet another person. The gemara in Maseches Brachos relates that Raban Yochanan Ben Zakai was always the one to greet another person first, even a non-Jew in the marketplace. The gemara even extend this further and says that if someone does not respond to a greeting, it is as if he or she has stolen from the other person.
Making eye contact with someone I am interacting with means that I am acknowledging there is a person in front of me. That person is not just someone I need something from or someone I do not have time for or patience to acknowledge. Rather, he or she is a person deserving of my respect and attention. Perhaps it is two friends engaged in a casual conversation, someone checking out at a grocery store with the cashier, or even a stranger we are passing by on the sidewalk. Whenever we are interacting with other people, it is simple derech eretz to look at them, greet them, and show them proper respect. Even if the conversation lengthens, our obligation to show respect to the other person does not diminish.
Over the last couple of months, we have been talking about different ways technology and smartphones have changed life. Deep and analytical ideas such as being able to live in the moment, parents setting good examples for their children, and numerous others. But sometimes it is the most basic lessons that we tend to overlook, the most elementary of middos that get forgotten. Something even a second grader can teach us. To look at someone in the eyes. To pick our heads up when we walk in the street and smile at those walking by us. To greet the cashier or waiter and say hello and thank you in a way that tells them we actually mean it. To put the phone down when our spouse is sharing a story with us and look them in the eye, showing the respect and decency they deserve.
Researchers at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine have found that the more eye contact a doctor makes with a patient, the more likely the patient is to adhere to medical advice, seek treatment for future problems, and have better overall health. A study out of Cornell University found that adults were more likely to buy a box of cereal if the character on the box was drawn in such a way that their eyes appeared to be looking at the potential consumer. Studies show that even newborns with their blurry infant vision instinctively connect to their caregiver by making eye contact.
Personally, I have a little bit of weird habit. Whenever I am talking to someone who takes out their phone in the middle of the conversation, I stop talking. It usually takes the other person a minute to realize that I have stopped, but when they do, they motion that it is ok for me to keep talking and they are listening. To which I will respond that I can just wait. Somehow, I come out of the conversation being the rude one.
It’s a busy world. People are running in all different directions and multitasking at a furious pace. But let’s not forget that there are people around us. People who deserve our attention and respect. And if we notice within ourselves that we have forgotten this basic social skill, we can just turn to our second grade children for a quick reminder.