A conversation with a girlfriend when I was in Italy a few weeks ago got me thinking about the latest new norm of the post-coronavirus society: enhanced eye contact. She had told me how, standing in the endless queue for the supermarket, wearing her mask, she had caught the eye of a handsome man in another loop of the queue and found herself engaged in a wordless flirtation carried out just with the eyes from a distance. After this, she had taken to piling on extra eyeliner and mascara.
“What I am saving in not buying lipstick I am spending on those full-volume mascaras,” she said, laughing.
Italians are masters of unabashed eye contact, but I wondered how this would work in London – my other home – where we do all we can to avoid gazing at each other. I have spent years passing colleagues along corridors, all of us flashing a smile then hastily looking down lest awkwardness should arise. But if the smile is covered by a mask and cannot be seen, it falls to the eyes to communicate that smile and that will mean – heavens forfend – that we will have to look up and meet each others’ eyes. How will we cope?
Adults are used to reading faces as a whole and if society is suddenly going to be masked up, then we will have to adapt quickly, making more use of prolonged eye contact. And yet this is not natural behaviour. Most animals look at each other only to signal threat or interest. In humans, social interaction is usually punctuated with very brief periods of mutual eye contact and deviations from this make us uncomfortable.
A British study found that people look at each other only 30-60% of the time when talking, let alone gazing into each other’s eyes. Surely this will change if we are all wearing masks and there is less on show to offer those all-important non-verbal clues to how we are feeling. After all, 55% of communication is non-verbal, and our facial expressions are a great part of that.
I had masks on my mind. Seven weeks into our lockdown in Italy and the province of Tuscany had just made it obligatory for everyone to wear masks and had issued each household with a quota of free ones. They had even made it out to our remote rural home in the foothills of the Apennine mountains: three masks per person. And I was about to wear one for an extended period for the first time, for a trip to Florence thanks to a broken filling.
Never has a journey to the dentist been so keenly anticipated. I had not been to the city – any city – since 29 February when I had come back home to Italy and self-isolated. As my fortnight of self isolation ended, the whole of Italy was placed in lockdown – the first European country to take such drastic measures. Any regret I felt for not having visited the hairdresser and the dentist while I could receded in the light of the national tragedy we saw unfolding on our televisions every night. As daily decrees restricted our movements ever more, I became accustomed to not nipping out for a favourite ingredient, to signing off emails with “stay well”, to scraping off the dried soap that clung to my wedding ring. By the time the filling in my tooth fell out, I had not left home for seven weeks.
But my tooth qualified as a medical emergency – one of only three reasons for which we were allowed out. I made the appointment, my dentist sent an email confirming my appointment, and I bundled this paper together with my self-declaration certificate and passport, packing the car with sanitising gel, several pairs of latex gloves and a spare mask.
I donned my mask. We had ordered several from a friend whose factory had switched from stitching clothes for Armani. I had chosen mine in rose pink – my attempt to make up for the red lipstick it was now pointless to apply. As I got ready, I used much more kohl and mascara on my eyes in compensation – think Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra as inspiration. I picked out earrings that would not get caught in the elastic and a jacket that coordinated with my mask.
The journey to Florence was quick and uneventful. There was no traffic and no police checks and I glided to the city through a fairyland of lush countryside shimmering under an extraordinary light made sharper for the lack of pollution.
After the dentist, I went to my favourite fruit and veg market, grateful for the mask covering up my anaesthetised mouth. I was buoyed to find parking still a nightmare and, in spite of only half the stalls being there and a mere smattering of people compared to normal, there was still a clamour and chaos that is pure Florentine charm. It was music to my ears.
But one thing was very different. Windows were open, but instead of clothes drying on the lines that stretch between them, there were masks flapping in the breeze. Instead of rosaries hanging off the rear-view mirrors of parked cars, there were now masks. This is our new normal. Everyone was wearing a face covering and I soon realised I had to ditch the sunglasses, in spite of the bright sunlight. With only eyes in evidence, it was impossible to communicate a smile with mine covered. The sunglasses migrated to my head, where they kept my wild lockdown locks in check, so that I could use my eyes for the non-verbal communication that we take so much for granted.
No wonder then that the Florentines I encountered had a startled look, their eyes raking others’ faces with an intensity that took me back. There was a sort of hunger in those looks: fear jostled with extreme curiosity, as if in the absence of the rest of your face, they wanted to extract every piece of information possible from your eyes.
As I threaded my way through the market, catching people’s eyes and holding their gaze, exaggeratedly crinkling my eyes to denote a smile, I felt another wave of familiarity. In Iran we are used to this wordless communication although we don’t cover our faces, just our hair. But, as in much of the Middle East, with female bodies and hair and sometimes faces covered up as a result of the social distancing that the segregation of genders entails, this mode of moving through the world is perfectly usual to us.
Science tells us that gazing into another’s eyes and holding that gaze for more than a beat sets off a whole raft of brain processes. We all know that feeling when, in falling into our lover’s eyes, the rest of the world seems to disappear. Romantic as this feels, it is a physiological response: the body produces a chemical called phenylethylamine when you look someone directly in the eyes, helping the brain grapple with the overwhelming awareness that we are looking at another conscious being. That’s why it can make us blush.
So powerful is direct eye contact that just one encounter with the Mona Lisa, with her gazing directly at us from across the centuries, makes the painting unforgettable. And who can forget the image of Princess Diana when she scrubbed in to watch an operation at Harefield Hospital in 1996, her face covered by a surgical mask, a wisp of blonde hair escaping from her surgical cap, her kohl-rimmed eyes looking intensely at the photographer – at us all – through a crowd of medics? Diana was the arch queen of eye contact, from those first shy gazes cast from under her famous fringe in 1980, to the heavily made-up eyes that were fixed on Martin Bashir as she uttered the immortal line: “There were three of us in this marriage.”
Princess Diana had nothing to learn from our niqab-wearing Saudi sisters – she was a natural master of the too-long held gaze and one suspects she would have heartily applauded the results of the study carried out by psychologist Arthur Aron who made two strangers fall in love in his lab by silently holding eye contact for four minutes (they were married six months later). But ordinary Europeans will need time to get used to communicating only through their eyes at a distance.
If that happens, we may find unexpected consequences to all this mask wearing and eye gazing; not only a rash of marriages, but greater empathy and compassion for our fellow humans. At the very least, simple flirting may become as playful and fun as it is in the Middle East.