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The role of eye-gaze diversion in the breakdown of communication

It’s refreshing to see a legitimately new research idea in press.  And if the idea is of good quality, I get all the more excited.  This research article measures the eye gaze of listeners as they are exposed to stuttering.  (In other words, special equipment recorded where the listeners were looking as they saw stuttered speech.)  Such an idea isn’t new; I remember having a conversation about this very research idea with one of the authors some 10 years ago–but it’s great to see that someone actually went out and did it.

There’s so much to like about this article.  First off, the breakdown of communication relative to stuttering is always blamed on the stutterer.  (The unconfident/diffident stutterer has bad eye contact because they’re nervous, which causes them to stutter.)  This study turns that assumption on its ear, and collects data on the fluent listener.  And what did they find?  Sure nuff, fluent listeners break eye contact when looking at stuttering.  So it appears as if no one is looking at anyone when stuttering is involved.  All parties are involved here…  (Looks like all could benefit from desensitization…)

This is where the authors and I differ.  They report that this break in eye contact is a response to the communication breakdown…  Nah.  Incomplete.  Innaccurate.  This break in eye contact *represents* a breakdown in communication.  They’re still under the mindset that ‘communication’ is the audible signal alone.  It’s not–the visual signal is an important part of communication, and when there is stuttering present, people are turning this modality off.

It’s a safe assumption to make that when listeners break eye contact, that can be a shameful realization for the speaker.  And that shame has consequences…

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  1. Cricket
    July 2nd, 2009 at 10:51 | #1

    Beg to differ, or at least throw in counter-examples. When performing, the audience quite often breaks eye contact. They close their eyes, or stare at a blank area, or take notes. Yet good communication still happens. In some Native American tribes, it’s considered rude and invasive to make eye contact while storytelling.

    I suspect eye contact is more important in smaller groups, or a sub-group, or maybe it’s the nature of the communication — more two-way, even if one direction is merely “yes, I follow you,” rather than one-way.

    Eye contact problems are associated with some types of PDD. My son with ADHD sometimes can’t concentrate if he has to keep eye contact. Theories abound. It’s easier for me to talk to him when he looks at me and clearly hears, rather than stares blankly because he can’t listen and make eye contact at the same time that day. I sometimes look away from him while talking so I’m not distracted by his lack of eye contact. Maybe some stutterers look away for that reason.

    So, you’re right that loss of eye contact can be cause, effect, or both at once. It’s an interesting thing to measure, and I’m glad they are looking at both stutterer and listener. They need to be careful to keep PDD / ADHD / Aspergers’ from messing up the data, and watch for compensation mechanisms.


    Greg @ Stuttering.me Reply:

    All of what you’re saying may be true, but the context of my post is relative to stuttering in traditional euro-american western cultures.


  2. July 4th, 2009 at 17:32 | #2

    Greg, I found that one time, watching a video of someone really stuck in a stutter, I broke eye-contact with the video.

    The guy wasn’t even in the room with me, and the video had been recorded in the long-past, and I still looked away from the screen!


    Greg @ Stuttering.me Reply:

    Yeah–that’s the finding of this study. So here’s the question…. why?


    Jane Lebak Reply:

    Instinct. I felt bad for him because he was trapped in a live interview on-camera and had no way out. Diverting my gaze is the New Yorker in me giving him “space” and a chance to collect himself.

    It’s the social lie, the same as if you spilled tomato sauce on your tie: I’ll pretend I didn’t see it, and you’ll pretend I didn’t notice it. With stuttering, there’s nothing shameful or *wrong* about it, of course. The problem was, the guy on the interview was clearly embarrassed and upset by having a sudden bad stutter, and he felt uncomfortable, so I automatically reacted by trying to give him space to regain his comfort zone.

    Which is stupid because it had happened long before I ever saw it and would never know my reaction. 🙂 I get that–but it’s a kind of empathy in the listener, I think, to give someone space to collect himself. We do that when someone sneezes or stumbles over a crack in the sidewalk or zips his fly, right? So when there’s a verbal “mistake” we do the same thing instinctively.

    But that’s a bad mechanism for the listener because the stutter isn’t a “mistake” that’s going to be a one-off and then go away.


  3. Peter McKay
    October 20th, 2010 at 08:22 | #3

    Hi Greg, great show. This is a really cool project. I think what you said about the visual signal being “an important part of communication” is exaclty right. But I think the absence of the visual signal is equally important, in that it is transmitting information. It’s easy for stutterers to get locked into the binary of either making eye contact or looking away in shame, but to me that’s ignoring a whole spectrum.


  4. Greg @ Stuttering.me
    February 12th, 2012 at 20:58 | #4

    Thanks for your kind words…


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