By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
The Minnesota State Senate, I learned from a recent NPR story, prohibits eye contact. Incredibly, the legislative body has a rule stating that all comments must be addressed to the Senate President, and that rule is interpreted to mean that senators cannot look their fellow senators in the eye while speaking. The reason for this bit of absurdity is, apparently, that the lawmakers believe direct eye contact leads to hostility and a loss of decorum. According to former majority leader, Senator Tom Bakk, "Going through the president forces people to listen rather than watch facial expressions and look at each other, which sometimes I think kind of inflames some of the rhetoric going back and forth."
The problem with that reasoning is that it assumes there is a simple and deterministic meaning to eye contact, but there isn't. Direct eye contact can convey hostility and disrespect, but it can also convey the opposite. The difference lies in what the rest of the face is doing, and also in the situational context. The NPR story quotes a dog behavior expert, Clive Wynne of Arizona State University: "A dog that's wagging its tail happily while it looks another dog in the eye is maybe communicating something friendly," Wynne explains, "whereas a dog that growls and has its hackles raised in a very tense body posture — the eye contact may just intensify that threat." Among humans, an ability to give eye contact doesn't necessarily increase persuasion, but it all depends on the context. In the complicated context of American litigation, eye contact plays a number of very important roles: It connects, communicates, and builds credibility. So what Wynne says to the Minnesota Senate applies as well in court: "Encourage positive, friendly eye contact, and discourage more aggressive, intimidating forms of eye contact." In this post, I'll look at a few different roles for attorney and witness eye contact.