Look at Me

When I was growing up I learned from my earliest years that one must look at the person who is talking to you. Both at home and at school this received great stress from teachers and parents. In fact, I remember one teacher who would become very angry if my eyes were not fixed to her face when she was reprimanding me. No one that I know ever questioned this requirement of American society. I remember that it was considered at best impolite and at worst evasive and shifty not to look at the person who is addressing you.

Fr. Gene Hillman meeting a Maasai young man in the early days
Fr. Gene Hillman meeting a Maasai young man in the early days
Gene comes upon a warrior out the plains
Gene comes upon a warrior out the plains

Given this Western or maybe just American custom, I have had a hard time getting used to the Maasai take on the same situation. Their way is exactly opposite of the American way. Here in Maasai country, one does not look for any length of time at the person addressing you. One looks at the person, especially when making a point, and then looks away. To nail one’s gaze on the one you are conversing with is very impolite and makes the other nervous, leaving him or her wondering what is going on. “Why is this person staring at me? Is he or she angry at me?”

This is true also in meetings. In the States when all eyes are fastened on the speaker the conclusion is that everyone is very interested and enjoying the talk. This is not true here. In fact, if all eyes would be fixed on the speaker during a Maasai meeting, the speaker would become very nervous and apprehensive. “”Why is everyone hating me OR WHAT I HAVE TO SAY?'”  Hating what I have to say?meeting 1

For a long time I couldn’t figure out why people were not looking at me during my homily on Sunday, a brief look and their gaze went elsewhere. My offerings must be boring, boring, boring. Only quite recently, after many years here in Africa and among the Maasai, did I realize that people were being polite, not uninterested. Of course, on days when there are snores coming from different parts of the congregation, the message is also clear.

One thought on “Look at Me”

  1. Ned,
    Congratulations on your 50th jubilee. I’ll mail a donation to one of your family in VT to deposit in your account in honor of your 50th.
    I always learn much from your newsletters and am grateful for you keeping me on the “mail” list.
    The story about eye contact reminded me of how very shy I was as a child and not wanting eye contact with older folks talking to me. But with age and training n public speaking I’ve come to appreciate the advantages of eyeball to eyeball communication.
    I had dinner with Vince last evening and he mentioned the probability of returning to Ethiopia for the 50th jubilee of Iede next August. For now, he’s very much enjoying the challenges of being a pastor in a poor neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The folks there are grateful and happy for his presence with them.

    Blessings on your every day of mission ministry.
    love and prayer,

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