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Look me in the eye

The summer after I graduated from college, I completed the first seven weeks of the 13-week Officer Training School at Maxwell AFB in Alabama. I eventually chose not to take a commission because my husband and I couldn’t get a joint assignment, but despite not getting a career out of the deal, the OTS experience had a lasting impact.

One small but profound change had to do with—believe it or not—eye contact.

I am by nature an introvert, kind of timid, and the antithesis of pushy. At least I used to be. 😉 As such, prolonged eye contact was uncomfortable. I’d look you in the eye, then look over your shoulder while telling my story, periodically reconnecting, then glancing at different spots around the room.

Enter the 1LT in charge of one of my groups. He asked us each in turn why we wanted to be in the Air Force. I proceeded to tell him about how much I admired my dad who was at the time a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy, and the characteristics he had that I wanted to emulate.

When I finished, the Lieutenant ripped me to shreds because I spent my entire impromptu speech looking out the window. Pretty much.

My face grew hot—I’m sure I wanted to cry, though I didn’t—and in that one moment, I wanted to quit. Why the hell should I sit here and take this kind of abuse? Who the hell does this a**hole think he is? Conflict and I don’t get along, and I hated that man for a long time for calling me out in front of everyone for doing what I thought was polite.

Funny thing, though. It stuck with me. I’ve never wanted to be perceived as weak or prissy. Until I started writing, my jobs from age 16 on were almost exclusively in male-dominated environments. I liked it that way, but I wanted to make sure I was on equal footing.

So I made sure I had a firm handshake, was always professional, knew my stuff—and after my painful lesson at OTS—maintained eye contact. Not in a scary, unblinking, serial killer kind of way, but rather in a strong, absolutely-not-submissive, totally-interested-in-what-you-have-to-say kind of way.

The most interesting part was not the effect it had on others, but the effect it had on me. Motivational guru Tony Robbins is big on the effects of physiology on mood. For example, if you’re feeling down, but you hold your head up, take full breaths, and let yourself smile the way you would if you were happy, you start to feel better.

I think the full eye contact made me feel more powerful and more confident. And now, while I try to follow the cues of the person I'm talking to and ascertain their comfort level, making eye contact is part of who I am.

So, to 1LT Jerk, who’s probably a general by now: thanks!

Tell your friends!


  1. Reply

    You know, I have a problem with that eye contact problem too. I feel like I’m staring when I look into someone’s eyes. It’s my weakness but you’ll keep my secret, right?

    • Reply

      Cyndi: My eyes are wide open, but my lips are sealed. 😉

      Seriously though, I know what you mean. I try to find a happy medium between maintaining eye contact and outright staring. It’s silly how much I still think about it.

  2. Reply

    I sometimes have trouble with eye contact. You probably noticed it at lunch yesterday! LOL! For me, it started in the teenage years, when lack of confidence is a problem in so many ways, and it’s a poor habit that’s stuck with me. Some days I’m better than others. Not sure why that is. When I realize I’m doing it (looking away) I try to stop, but then I sometimes get more self conscious about it and it sort of self-perpetuates. A trick I’ve learned over the years is to look at a person’s eyebrows. To them, it will still look like you are meeting their eye

    • Reply

      Too funny, Maura. All I noticed yesterday was that every once in a while I felt like I was staring you down. 😉 We’re quite a pair, eh? Lunch was great, BTW!

  3. Reply

    I remember being 13 and the woman who I was going to baby sit for said she appreciated that I would look her in the eye. Apparently her neice would never do that. I’m not super introverted, but I definitely trend toward that end of the scale. Still, eye contact has never been a problem of mine.

    Also, you are not the only person blogging about introverts recently. I thought you might like to see this post from Bad Mommy Moments about her introverted children.

  4. Reply

    Kali: It’s interesting the small moments we remember isn’t it? When I was a teen my grandma asked me why I looked at the ground when I walked. I had no idea. She said I should keep chin up like I’m confident, and not worry about looking stuck up. That one stuck with me too and I pretty much always walked head up from then on. And it really does change how you feel.

    Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out. 🙂

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