Research has shown that around 70% of the meaning we convey when we talk to others is actually transmitted by our body language. Our posture, gestures, facial expression and our eyes reveal so much more about what we say than the words themselves. Being oblivious to these critical signals is therefore one of the most disabling aspects of my visual impairment.
The inability to make eye contact is one of the most difficult things I have learned to live with. Our eyes are so demonstrative, so individual and so meaningful. They are windows into our minds that tell people our state of consciousness, our mood, our level of fear, excitement, interest or honesty. Being visually-impaired is like having a curtain drawn over those windows which not only stops others looking in, but stops me peering into theirs for those vital clues that give that extra dimension to our daily communication.
I suppose, over the years I must have developed alternative strategies. I probably listen more carefully for auditory clues, like someone’s tone of voice or the rate of their speech. The sound of snoring is usually a good clue that I’ve lost the listener’s attention.
Cultural conventions demand that we maintain a typically British amount of personal space, so standing very close so that I can see a little more tends only to be possible with my immediate family, an even then it depends what I’ve been eating.
The two types of situation when it bothers me most are quite different. At work, I can find myself talking to a group of colleagues when it dawns omni that I have no idea whether they are listening intently or shooting bored glances at each other. Suddenly, I feel like I’m talking to an empty room and feel desperate for someone to jump in and set off a discussion – clearly, my deep psychological need for feedback cannot go denied for more than a few seconds. My other nightmare scenario is the social gathering where mixing and mingling is the order of the night. All too often for my liking I find myself caught between conversations, unable to read the visual clues that allow a timely contribution. Anxiety creeps in and, wanting to avoid the risk of the person disappearing and leaving me talking to thin air, it’s not uncommon for me to lean forward attentively and head butt them instead.
I wonder if this type of problem is as great in countries like India, where I’m told the culture encourages avoiding eye-contact, as a sign of respect. I could be so respectful in a place like that.