Saturday, 5 July 2014

Oaxaca - What the Heart doesn't feel

When I start blogging about a new place, I like to do a 'Google Instant test' to see what's out there on the Internet, in terms of the place I'm blogging about. It's an interesting thing to do, if you want to try it for yourself - basically, you start typing a sentence eg. Do Germans . . .? or Are Chinese people . . .? and Google fills in the rest of the question based on what other people have been searching for.  It's a great insight into the things people are interested in and can produce some surprising, and often disturbing, results.

Why do Mexicans . . .

I tried this with Why do Mexican . . . and the top results included things like Why do Mexican immigrants move to the United States? Why do Mexicans look Asian? and Why do Mexican cartels behead?  Looking back on my first blog post on Oaxaca and the stereotypes I mentioned (immigration, drugs, violence), it's sad to think that this is all Mexico means to most people!  The purpose of this blog is to help me get beyond the stereotypes and learn something else about the places I'm blogging about.

The Google Instant question that intrigued me most however was:

Why do Mexicans stare?

I had no preconception about Mexicans staring and I was a bit shocked by this question, although it's obviously a hot topic for many people (mostly in the USA?)  There is an implicit prejudice/racism in the question and a fascinating psychology behind the fear that this question touches on; fear of attack, sexual assault, fear of being observed, fear of envy or intimacy.

Why do people stare?


Staring man in Sri Lanka by Brett Davies
Eye contact is a very intense thing for any species and we humans are no exceptions.  When dealing with wild animals or even domestic pets, such as dogs, making eye contact can trigger a violent attack and whilst human 'civilisation' has evolved in a way that removes aggression and violence from everyday life, direct eye contact with a stranger is still a potentially risky thing to do!

Ever notice how people don't make eye contact in elevators?  The intensity of being in an enclosed space means we tend to keep our eyes fixed on the floor or the changing lights of the elevator buttons!

Even during conversation, with someone we know, we tend not to make eye contact, except at the end of each sentence, to ensure the other person has been listening and has understood.  In some cultures, keeping your eyes lowered is extremely important - I'm thinking of places like Japan, China and Thailand.  In India, eye contact has class barriers, in some countries, like Saudi Arabia, eye contact is restricted by gender.

In most parts of the world, we get around eye contact issues by wearing sunglasses, a safe retreat from the threat of eye contact, but also a potentially menacing approach that says: Keep your distance.

The etiquette of eye contact

The Juju death stare by Viewminder
I think cultural differences are at the heart of this question.  Perhaps it's not that Mexicans stare, but that they hold eye contact for a split-second longer than people in the US are used to?  We northern Europeans are famous for our love of personal space and I think our slightly more modest approach to eye contact, touching and physical space has been carried over to the United States, even if they do engage in a bit more back-slapping that we would consider to be appropriate!

I'd imagine that Mexicans, on the other hand, are much more open and relaxed in terms of eye contact and physical space, presumably a cultural import from Spain and the norms of southern European culture. The question Why do Mexicans stare? opens up a cultural Pandora's box that is essentially European in origin.

Aztec and Mayan cultures had strict protocols around eye contact and, like in India and East Asia, ordinary people weren't expected to make any eye contact with their superiors.  The Spanish conquistadors violated all taboos in relation to looking the Aztec leaders/priests directly in the face and they had no respect for the personal space the Aztec leaders/priests were accustomed to.

The Eye of the Beholder

Staring child by Erin/ephotography
Have you ever noticed that young children stare a lot?  This is because they haven't yet learned the social conventions around eye contact.  They stare out of curiosity and their stares are non-threatening, although they can make adults uncomfortable, as we're not used to high-levels of eye contact.

There are two times in our lives when we spend a lot of time staring into someone else's eyes.  When we're infants, we spend months staring into the eyes of our mothers, in fact, that's all we see, or want to see in the early part of our lives. And, of course, when we fall in love, we spend a lot of time staring into the eyes of our lover, as though loss of eye contact, will mean the loss of love!

There's a link between aggression and passion and eye contact is both the language of those who love and those who hate.  If you've ever watched a boxing match, you'll be familiar with the 'stare down' and non-physical precursor to the fight when the boxers try to intimidate each other.  Have a look at this YouTube video showing some of the most famous 'staredowns' in boxing history to see what I mean.



In a more innocent way, we play with this difficult social skill when we have competitions to see who can win at 'outstaring' other people.

Windows to the Soul


Such is the importance of eye contact to our psychology that our languages are full of idioms and expressions which I could fill a whole other blog post with.  One of my favourites is:

The eyes are the windows to the soul

This is a traditional English proverb that has been recycled many times by writers, poets and lovers.  To me it encapsulates everything I've mentioned above; fragility, weakness, submission, vulnerability.

I also love the traditional Irish expression:

Is maith an scáthán súil charad (A friend's eye is a good mirror)

Friends are definitely people we can make eye contact with, we bare our souls to friends and let them experience our weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  It's a social bond which is amazing, if only because it exists outside the usual protective circles of family/spouses.
The Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez

It's interesting to have a look at the Spanish expression:

Ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente

We usually translate this with an equivalent English-idiom 'Out of sight, out of mind' but I'm much more interested in the literal translation of this expression:

What the eyes don't see, the heart doesn't feel

Perhaps the reverse scenario of US citizens who are intimidated by 'staring Mexicans' is the perception of Mexicans that people in the US are unfeeling and not very welcoming.  Something worth thinking about?

Image credits:

I personally find it very difficult to take photographs of people, when I'm travelling around the world.  It's a skill I haven't yet mastered, which is a shame, as people are so interesting!  The image of the man in Sri Lanka was taken by Flickr member, photosightfaces aka Brett Davies, who is originally from Sydney. Brett has a whole series of photos of people in Sri Lanka, it's a really interesting collection to browse through.

The photo of the Juju death stare is by Flickr member, Viewfinder - originally from Chicago, you can see more of Viewfinder's photos on his photo stream.  There's an interesting story behind this photo, which you can read on the photo's own information page on Flickr.

The picture of the staring child is by Flickr member, ephotography, aka Erin, who is from Vancouver in Canada.  You can see more of Erin's photos on her photo stream.

Thanks to Brett, Viewfinder and Erin for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons license.

Nowadays, we feel safe with images that stare at us from a painting or a photograph, but I've included an image of The Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez (1647-51) to remind us how this painting was considered to incredibly controversial at the time.  The woman, who was probably a courtesan, was shown to be staring at the observer, something that was unheard of in 17th century European painting, even though she is depicted as staring at us indirectly through a mirror!  
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