“A me gli occhi,” says Italian actor Gigi Proietti who made his eyes impossible to resist on his one-man show – everyone in the audience had eyes on him. Proietti is a 74-year-old Roman actor, comedian, director, musician, singer and television presenter. In Italy, he lends his voice to famous actors Robert De Niro, Sean Connery, Sylvester Stallone, Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Dustin Hoffman, Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, and more.
68-year-old producer Brian Grazer says the key to his success in Hollywood comes down to one thing – eye contact. “The WiFi of human connection is looking at somebody.” It’s also one key to his success in connecting deeply with other people. Grazer is the Oscar winner behind A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, and 8 Mile, which almost didn’t get made and tested his ability to connect with the star actor, Eminem.
What Grazer figured out, what Proietti knew would mesmerize in his show is that connection happens when we’re completely present to someone. When we’re face to face, eye contact says, “I see you,” it helps us read someone’s energy.
Nowhere in the world is this more possible than in Italy. Because Italians use the most body language of all European nations.
Your eyes are the window to the soul
Eye contact communicates very different things to people of various cultures. It may signify respect, disrespect, flirtation or sincere interest. Italians talk with their hands and gestures a lot, but in conversation they connect through the eyes.
Averting your eyes as you talk with someone is Italy may mean that you’re hiding something. Eye contact signals that we’re here, we’re interested, and we value the person we’re with in this moment.
It takes getting used to, especially if you’re from a culture or mindset that tends to associate shameful connotations with looking people in the eyes. If you catch someone’s gaze whose attention you didn’t want to invite, it can be embarrassing.
Growing up in Italy, we used to have staring down contests. Two people faced each other and had to look in the eyes of the other person for as long as they could. The one who averted eyes first lost.
Sometimes the contest had unintended consequences, as you got to see something new or unexpected in the eyes of the person you were facing. Maybe you felt something different for the first time. I don’t know of any harmful effects coming for the game, but I know not everyone was game to play it, either.
Attracting the right kind of attention
There are moments when we want to be left alone to admire a scape, or enjoy a private thought. Burying our head into a book, writing on a notebook or sketching something are all activities that require some concentration.
But they’re also opportunities to connect based on our same frame of mind. Sit down to read, write or draw at a café by yourself, or on a bench in the park or a piazza, and you may still exchange a few words with someone just passing by or also in proximity who finds what you do interesting.
It’s human nature to be curious when we see someone interested in something. It’s especially Italian to be on the lookout for a spark to latch onto. I’ve began many a conversation when I was engrossed in a book, or jotting down a few notes in a public place.
We want to be understood, appreciated, and valued. We want to be seen, yet secretly we are a little scared of getting attention. A shared interest, an object two people can talk about is a good way to start a conversation and establish some common ground.
I have fond memories of books that created the initial interest, because more often than not, I met new friends that way.
Participating actively to experiences
Talking to strangers turns necessity into a habit when you’re traveling solo. Trains, hotel lobbies, piazze are fertile ground for practice.
For example, a chance encounter on a train back from the shore led me to hours of conversation, a welcome walking companion, then joining a band as singer a few weeks later. Singing in the band created new opportunities and friendships for me.
Other times, it just means learning something new, or getting help in finding a place. The willingness to open up and share a little of oneself – even if it’s just a hint that you’re lost – can help you interact with the locals.
You don’t have to speak the language. Believe it or not, a word or two in Italian can give you more mileage than perfect sentences in other countries. I once drove to the train station in my hometown so that someone who was lost could follow me in their car – and I was going in the opposite direction! It was easier to show him.
Sometimes when we talk to someone else we become more aware of what we think and feel as we look at things through their eyes. There’s a natural rhythm to looking people in the eyes. It takes practice to figure it out.
Italy is a great place to practice, because we’re already predisposed to connecting that way. Try it, you may make new friends.