As a young woman living in the city in Sydney I forgot how to make eye contact. I was going through a period of intense shyness. If someone wanted a one-on-one conversation with me, I would sit or stand alongside them, looking ahead.
I used to be outgoing till then, but the city made me oversensitive to the body language of those around me. Living in the city became a kind of private hell as my brain struggled to decode every passing gesture. I found algorithms of power on the footpaths, where people would see each other approach and decide who should step aside. The elements in the algorithm included wealth, confidence, gender, race and occupational markers in dress. So if a man in a grey suit (or worse, two of them) approached me on the footpath, I would be expected to give way. If an aged migrant man bowed his head and let me pass, I was deeply moved by his deference. I was young and easily confused.
After a couple of years of this, a conversation at a party — I did not do particularly well at parties — changed me.
“I’m really interested in people’s noses. I draw them all the time, see?” A young artist drew me a couple of noses on the back of an envelope. “I work down at the Quay, doing portraits of people. I start by looking at their noses. If I can get the nose right, the rest of the drawing is easy. And sometimes I’m a bit shy with strangers,” he continued with a gentle smile. “So I find that if I look at someone’s nose they feel like I’m looking at them, even if I don’t want to look in their eyes.” It was the beginning of the end of my shyness. I expect he was rewarded by a broad smile as I practised looking at his nose.
“Eye contact is inappropriate with an Aboriginal patient. True or false?” Something like this was aquestion in one of the specialist college exams for doctors several years ago. It’s a cliché that Australian Aboriginal people avoid eye contact. The correct answer is: “It depends.” It depends where the person is from, their age, their experience with urban cultures, whether they are involved in ceremony at the time, whether they know you well or not; in fact, it depends on a thousand other things. A powerful young Aboriginal doctor fought with her College about that question. I don’t have the exact numbers, but she’d been failed by 0.4% and was damned if she was going to spend many months and a thousand dollars more to re-sit the exam on the basis of that question. The College conceded that the question was faulty and failed her by 0.1% instead.
Aboriginal people avoid eye contact for many reasons. It can be a gesture of respect and a deference to your power. It can also show their own independence of your power. (You can feel the difference.) Some people of some cultures, including some Indigenous cultures, don’t have a way of conversing with their eyes which is compatible with, using the white Western model. Others have more eye contact than a foreigner can cope with. The Tongans, for example, have a wonderful way of widening their eyes to show their interest. They use a wider range of facial expression than most urban people. If you haven’t seen it before it can be astonishing. The urban Westerner is the one who ends up looking at the ground, avoiding eye contact in a type of conversation they don’t know how to have.
The non-verbal skills of many Anangu people, Aboriginal people of that great country in the centre of Australia called the APY Lands, are born of hunting. Today, their sign language extends to urban life. If you’re looking for someone, you can make a sign for that person across a street or car park. The person you are signalling might use their lips or eyes to point in the appropriate direction. You know you’ve been around Anangu for a while when someone asks you non-verbally whether you can spare a few dollars for food and you are able to reply in the same language. A lot of this language has been lost among differently colonised people in urban areas.
Before colonisation, Australian Aboriginal people often lived in clans of perhaps 30 or 70 people. Some travelled in even smaller family groups. Perhaps they learned to avoid contact as a way of guarding privacy and keeping your personal space intact, while living in a small group. If you’re sitting across a fire from someone every day of your life, keeping your eyes to yourself might help make it bearable. On the other hand, Europeans learned to keep their faces and bodies more constrained. Perhaps they stopped touching each other during the Great Plagues of Europe. Perhaps they learned to eyeball one another for connection and reassurance when touching seemed to become fatal in the great filthy cities, with their flea-carrying rats.
In 2004, at the Sydney hospital where I was a student, a surgeon-tutor repeatedly reduced a Jewish woman in our group to tears. When she left to go on rural placement he made me (the Koori student) cry next. This doctor, who would be outraged at any suggestion that he was prejudiced against cultural minorities, had an unerring instinct for those of us who were different. He paid more attention to us and considered himself more caring to us. Our tears mystified him, proving our instability and encouraging his further concern and attention. His lack of insight into his destructive behaviour created an important lesson for all of his students.
This happens to Aboriginal people often. In situations of disempowerment – perhaps an encounter with an authority figure -- we find ourselves responding to tone and body language instead of the words, leading to awkward situations of miscommunication and even conflict.
Indigenous students have their own unique learning styles. Imagine how much easier it would be to integrate Indigenous students into education if teachers and the students themselves understood their learning and communication styles. My own experience taught me that the path to becoming a doctor confronts a student with a massive volume of information. Perhaps some of that information would feel less overwhelming if the teachers knew a kinder, more inclusive way to reach Indigenous students. And in turn, the students would know how to reach patients who did not meet their eyes. No need, after all, for an eye for an eye.