The Eyes Don’t Always Have It

“Eye contact is a powerful force.” John Millen says this in Why eye contact matters so much.

Millen has a point. He explains the importance of making eye contact (for American culture) in presentations and face-to-face meetings. He also provides tips for improving eye contact skills, such as maintaining eye contact until you finish making your point.

Millen does caution against assuming all cultures value eye contact the same way. Eye contact in China is construed as anger, for example.

If I could sit down and talk about this article with Millen, these are the other considerations I would encourage him to make, however.

Other skills besides eye contact should factor heavily in hiring/promotions

Discussing people on the autism spectrum is a bit fraught, because every person with autism experiences life from a very individual perspective. However, eye contact is frequently an area where they may behave differently than neurotypical people. One study said, “first-hand reports suggest that simply avoiding to attend to the eyes of others is one common strategy [to avoid discomfort].”

Terra Vance of The Aspergian compiled comments from several people on the spectrum regarding their thoughts about not making eye contact. Here’s an example:

Because it’s as comfortable as pushing two polarised magnets together. – Shay from Portland, Ore.

Having difficulty making eye contact does not take away all of the other capabilities that make these people excellent workers.

In 2019, eye contact is potentially divisive

Watch the video of this 2015 traffic stop in Ohio:

John Felton, the Ohio motorist in the video, was driving to his mother’s house when he was pulled over by a police officer. Although the officer’s reason for pulling Felton over was that he did not apply his turn signal early enough, the officer went on to say his reason was really, “Because you made direct eye contact with me, and you held on to it while I was passing you.”

The CNN report says the two end up going to mediation rather than a hearing. I wonder how that turned out.

Besides Fenton’s situation, eye contact is often interpreted in different ways by different groups.

Writing for Facing History and Ourselves, Binna Kandola says a failure to make eye contact is a “micro-incivility” that makes a person “[feel] invisible and excludes them from the group.”

On the flip side (or at least a different angle), the National Review contends, contrary to Oxford University’s opinion, that eye contact (or lack thereof) shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of racism. “Talking to someone who won’t look at you is an experience that everyone in the world has had, regardless of race, and arbitrarily assigning racial motivations to something so universal isn’t going to help anyone,” writes Katherine Timpf.

Why putting too much emphasis on eye contact matters

Millen’s points were valid and useful. Like I said, the conversation needs to be extended to acknowledge the neurological factors that influence why we do or do not make eye contact, as well as the differences in how people of various races interpret eye contact expectations, especially in the US.

I am married to someone who doesn’t make eye contact especially well (yet has been successful professionally). My son wasn’t big on it as a kid; the expectations of educators and other adults that he do so seemed to place an undue burden on him. As a faceblind person, I have had my share of being misunderstood as aloof or forgetful because I failed to immediately recognize someone who had every reason (based on our past history) to think I would.

We understand more now about human behavior and the way the brain functions than we ever did before. We should use that understanding to bring more people into the fold of our organizations rather than close our eyes to their potential.

Beyond eye contact

Should Office Plants be Banned?

“They’ll have to pry my African Violets from my cold dead hands.”

Many of us (I count myself in this number) don’t like unexpected changes in our work environments. Sometimes the change is something relatively minor (maybe a piece of decorative art on the wall was changed). Other times, the change is more drastic (people accustomed to having their own offices are moved to a cubicle setup, perhaps).

Where do office plants fit into that picture, and how rigid should management be about the topic?

Office plant bans

The potential for an office plant ban for Florida state employees

Florida DMS warns state workers may lose their office plants, says a recent Tallahassee Democrat article (the quote at the beginning of this post is from the article). To summarize, the agency responsible for managing state employees and properties is considering a “plant policy” for the approximately 800 people working for DMS. The policy is apparently being developed in response to “negative impacts caused by the flowers, house plants and cacti [employees] use to decorate their desks and offices.”

At first, I primarily laughed at this article. I’ve been a Florida state employee. I’m married to a Florida state employee. If there were a range of “things that threaten the State of Florida employee base,” houseplants would not earn themselves a high spot.

As with any question of this nature, though, the answer lies somewhere in between.

Is the “BBC Ban” a legitimate reference point?

The Tallahassee Democrat article says, “The BBC banned plants when it opened new offices in London in 2013.” Well, yes … and no. This “Daily Mail” article from 2013 explains it. First, employees were “urged not to” (versus being “prohibited from”) include plants (deemed as carrying the potential to “form un-collaborative barriers” along with being allergens and inviting insects) in their office decor. Second, the “urging” extended to other items: “kettles, microwaves, fridges, lamps, heaters or fans” and coat-stands (which apparently obscure the line of vision). The kettles, heaters and fans pose the danger of setting off fire alarms. In addition, trash cans were replaced by “recycling hubs.”

I wonder how many of those prohibitions that were laid down in 2013 are still in effect at the BBC in 2019. For the sake of our discussion, though, the point is that it was not a ban exactly. Here’s the last line of the “Daily Mail article. A BBC spokesman said: ‘There’s no official ‘ban’ on plants. We’d just prefer it if people didn’t bring them in.'”

Are there true problems with plants in offices?

Back to the Tallahassee article. These are the issues a DMS spokesperson shared: “House plants can contribute to mold growth, damage desks and windows in offices and encourage pests such as flies and mites when not properly cared for. “

Mold is something to take seriously. The State of Florida is facing a lawsuit over environmental issues (including mold) in the Northwood Center. As I have written about previously, I have a close friend whose life has been turned upside down by her spouse’s mold-related illness.

After I shared the Democrat article on my personal Facebook page, my good friend who had a stem cell transplant due to Multiple Myeloma told me she was prohibited from having plants at home for 100 days after her procedure due to the possibility of mold and germs.

The Wall Street Journal listed fungi spores that can aggravate asthma, odorless gasses known as “volatile organic compounds,” bugs and surplus carbon dioxide in the evenings “when energy from light isn’t available.” (To be fair, the article also covers the benefits of houseplants.

Is hot desking making houseplants a hot issue?

Most of my previous career, I had my own office. I am now a remote worker, so my plants are my own business (I can’t have plants, though, because my cats see them as snacks). My peers who do work at our brick and mortar office are all seated in a common room.

With the growth of cubicle setups and hot desking, the potential for houseplants to present a problem has expanded. The physical spacing is closer, and the boundaries are more difficult to define. Maybe that’s why the BBC saw plants as a potential “desk-grab” weapon.

It bears mentioning that there are other irritants in the office environment. There’s one comment (so far) on the Tallahassee Democrat article, and it mentions “cologne, hairspray, cigarette, pot, and other odors.” That’s true. Apparently, the houseplant issue has taken root and it’s getting its time in the policy-making spotlight.

A State Worker Says …

As I have thought through this article (and issue), it has become increasingly apparent that — as is often the case — one newspaper article can’t possibly accurately fully capture an issue and its nuances.

At dinner a few nights ago, I eagerly brought the topic up to my husband, who is senior enough at a state agency to be part of human resources policy discussions. I thought he would be as shocked and amused as I was.

His response (paraphrasing here)? “Oh that? That got distributed weeks ago. It’s another of those issues where a tiny minority that doesn’t take care of their plants causes a problem that results in a policy solution that also affects the people who aren’t causing a problem.”

Pruning this Issue to the Critical Point

I’m still amused at the article, partially because the writing highlighted the humor inherent in the situation (props to James Call). As I have thought about it and researched some of the nuances, though, I’m laughing a little less and thinking a little more.

Headlines don’t tell the whole story. Plants to pose a legitimate problem in the modern workplace. Awareness of how our individual choices affect our coworkers is not a bad thing, especially now that we are working in closer proximity to each other and expected to demonstrate flexibility regarding where and how we work.

Besides, maybe taking a quick nature break to step outside and get some fresh air the old-fashioned way might be better for our mental and physical health anyway.

What are your thoughts? Keep the kaffir lily or dump the donkey’s tail?