by Peggy Lang
WITH EYES WIDE SHUT
But closed eyes? A power ploy? A disgruntled individual asked an online psychologist if it was normal to feel like an idiot while listening to a woman who continually closed her eyes as she talked at him. The questioner felt excluded, talked down to, preached at. The psychologist gave some interesting answers but barely touched on what I call power ploys and power tics. Obviously, humans and other animals use their eyes to convey social messages. (If you’re out power-walking and encounter a territorial Rottweiler, don’t look him in the eye.) The whole reason humans have more whites in their eyes than do animals is to more effectively convey nuanced social messages through varying kinds of eye contact. (Oculesics is the study of eye contact, how it’s used, and the meaning it conveys in various cultural contexts.)
The Using Body Language website is a trove of physical behaviors and what they mean, especially with the end of changing minds (gaining power over others.)
So what was going on with the closed eyes? I personally became interested in this specific behavior during an encounter with an elderly and rather domineering mother and her fifty-something dependent daughter. I had the same emotional reaction as the person who felt excluded and preached at. The daughter kept closing her eyes for long periods of time as she spoke. I entertained fantasies of flicking ice water in her face—which made me feel bad because mother and daughter were otherwise quite charming.
Then I noticed talking head Peggy Noonan on This Week (with Jake Tapper subbing for George Stephanopoulos) speaking a long spiel with her eyes nearly closed. As a writer, I’m always thinking, what’s with odd behavior like that?
So often the answer comes down to power. Over the course of a simple conversation, we generally want to be heard and valued for what we have to say. You could say that is one goal of conversation. And what you usually discover early in life is that you’re considered rude if you grab attention/power by interrupting. And you also discover that other people interrupt you all the time. So we’ve all developed subtle strategies to address our goal of being heard and valued.
When someone speaks more than a phrase or two with eyes closed, I suspect that person is subconsciously thinking: I’ve shut out the world that has you in it because I’m going into my own beliefs that are deeply held, and I don’t want to be distracted by anything you might be about to say. And furthermore, you’re monumentally rude if you interrupt a person who is speaking in this ultra-sincere way.
I doubt if the daughter I mentioned or Peggy Noonan consciously thought all this, but I also think this might be, if not a conscious ploy, then at least a “power tic” that evolved over the years as an effective tool to hold one’s ground in a semi-threatening conversation—such as with a domineering mother or with bunch of talking heads as eager as Rottweilers to dominate the power exchange.
I find this positively fascinating. As writers, we focus on scenes that feature an imbalance of power. (A scene in which everyone has an equal say and is courteous, resulting in a win-win situation might be appropriate on the final page—or not—but in the course of a story, it is the equivalent of literary Sominex.) So we concern ourselves with a battle of wills, made more vivid with the means in which people vie for power, consciously and subconsciously.
I hope you’ll participate. You can do so in two ways:
Send in a paragraph or two of an example in published literature (or film) of characters exhibiting the targeted behavior—in this case, speaking with eyes closed.
Write a short scene of up to 700 words in which the targeted behavior is dramatized. Hopefully, several of the responses will be published on this blog and then archived.
YOUR WRITING ASSIGNMENT, should you choose to accept it: write a scene (goal-conflict-disaster) in one character’s point of view, showing his or her challenge in dealing with a person who closes his or her eyes during certain key exchanges.
May the muse be with you!