Haru has a very reserved personality, which shows in the way he expresses (or doesn’t express) himself: physically, emotionally, vocally and verbally. This is all the more noticeable due to all the expressive people who surround him: Makoto with his ever-reassuring smile, Nagisa with his loud support and his physical expressions of affection, Rei with his tendency to ramble, and Rin with his aggressive manner of communication, just to name a few examples.
Note that in the following, observations are made mainly by comparing characters within the context of anime and manga as well as Free! specifically, rather than the broader cultural context, which certainly does have its differences as well.
For starters, Haru’s expression mostly remains “the same”, whereas everyone else’s expressions typically change multiple times during a conversation and as they react to things. Rather than describing this as Haru’s facial expressions being “limited”, I’d say that his expressions usually change only marginally, even when he’s genuinely surprised, so the discrepancy is notably due to the contrast. (That and the fact that Haru embodies a certain character type commonly found in anime.) Haru usually wears a nondescript, unimpressed or slightly annoyed expression, regardless of the actual range of emotions within him. In the first season in particular, he is rarely found smiling.
See below and Connecting for more screenshots.
Haru may not have any issues with eye contact per se, but he does generally make less eye contact compared to other characters. Rather than maintaining eye contact, he’d look to the side or downward, averting his gaze even as others are looking straight at him and addressing him. (See Connecting for Haru not necessarily looking at the speaker in group settings.)
Beyond that, his limited eye contact is linked to several mannerisms: Haru tends to turn his head away when he is not pleased with something but doesn’t have a counter, when someone fundamentally misinterprets him, or when his thoughts are transparent to others. He does the same when he firmly objects to something, such as being dragged into something that he isn’t all too excited about.
Haru has that same habit of looking away when he’s abashed or otherwise emotionally overwhelmed, all the more so if he doesn’t know how exactly to put his feelings into words. Perhaps the most notable scene in the context of avoiding eye contact occurs in 1.11, where Haru expresses his deep gratitude for Makoto — without even turning around in his bed to look into Makoto’s direction.
Being emotionally overwhelmed also includes moments where he’s troubled and still in the process of sorting things out internally, and not ready yet to meet someone’s questioning gaze. That is not to say that Haru opens up right away once he has clarity regarding his emotions: His tendency to close himself off while keeping physical distance and avoiding eye contact is examined under Connecting.
Gesticulation and Physical Contact
Haru typically doesn’t gesticulate when talking to others, and very rarely initiates physical contact. Among the cast, Nagisa and Rin are the most forward characters when it comes to body contact, as both of them would liberally grab or hug their friends — and they both love grabbing Haru. At times, Haru becomes slightly annoyed when being casually touched, but as he becomes accustomed to someone and grows closer to them, he seems to stop minding their expressions of affection (or learns to tolerate them at the very least), even if he doesn’t ever physically return them.
A notable counterexample to this occurs in 2.08, where Kisumi, a former classmate from middle school, excitedly hugs Haru multiple times because he’s happy to meet Haru again after such a long time. Though there must be a story between the two of them that isn’t covered in the anime, they don’t seem particularly close either. The noteworthy element in this is the fact that Haru goes as far as shaking off Kisumi’s arm twice after being met with such affection: an obvious rejection compared to his tolerance of Nagisa and Rin’s frequent hugs. Their first encounter in the episode even concludes with Haru sighing deeply after Kisumi finally leaves.
Autism: Body Language and Eye Contact
Under Sensitivity & Sameness, stimming has been explained as a way of autistic self-expression. Additionally, touch sensitivity is one reason why some autistic people vehemently dislike being touched. That aside, diagnostic criteria of the autism spectrum usually include poor nonverbal communication skills, including lacking facial expressions and insufficient or atypical use of gestures and overall body language. Additionally, autistic people may have great difficulty understanding nonverbal social cues. Rather than diving further into that, the following will focus on eye contact, as I don’t feel like I have read enough about autistic people’s physical expression aside from stimming, and don’t want to risk misinformation.
When interacting with an autistic individual, especially if they’re not a child, one might not be able to tell right away that they’re autistic, for autism can be largely invisible on a superficial level. Speaking strictly of vision though, there’s one thing that can give it away: the lack of eye contact. And in social interaction, that can turn into a big issue when the environment does not or refuses to understand the autistic challenges that come with it.
Not all autistic people have difficulty with eye contact, but many do, for various reasons. To some of them, eye contact is uncomfortable, to others, it may feel threatening; in all cases, making eye contact means getting overwhelmed — to the point of experiencing pain when maintaining it for too long. One reason is that looking someone in the eye can feel too intimate: It feels like exposing yourself to someone else and inviting their judgement, while also receiving all of that information from the other person without wanting to. Another reason is that making eye contact simply feels unnatural and unnecessary, especially when the autistic person isn’t able to efficiently parse information conveyed through the eyes in the first place: unsurprising, as the struggle with interpreting social and especially nonverbal cues is part of being autistic. It is also superfluous when the autistic person in question has prosopagnosia (face blindness) — which is especially common for autism — and thus struggles with recognizing faces.
Another reason is sensory hypersensitivity: Looking at someone else can mean perceiving all of their eye movements, which consists of many different parts, from the pupils to the eye lashes, the eye lids, the light, how they affect the overall facial expression, and so on. It also means seeing their entire face in all its detail and taking in all the body language that comes with it. Some autistic people are also extremely receptive to other people’s emotions, and thus be hypersensitive to such emotional input — again, without wanting to. As expected, all of this can be immensely distracting and draining due to the amount of input received, and can also lead to sensory overload.
As a result, autistic people who struggle with eye contact have a difficult time focusing when making eye contact. A major part of autism that isn’t sufficiently covered on Waterbound is the struggle with the complexity of communication and social interaction: To an autistic person, what comes intuitively to others is broken down into a great many parts — steps that need to be consciously gone through in order to grasp what the other person is saying and to form the appropriate response. This archived chart by the little black duck is one way to portray that process. Having to put up with the sensory stress of visual input is distracting and continuously disrupts that internal process, as the simultaneous processing of visual information and verbal input may not be possible, or at the very least severely complicated — not to mention all the other processes neither visual nor purely verbal that are occurring.
To understand why the lack of eye contact is such a big issue, it is necessary to understand what cultural beliefs are held with regard to it. In my environment, making eye contact with your conversation partner means paying attention to them and taking part in the conversation: It is a sign of respect and interest, not just in what they’re saying, but in their person. As eye contact is a given, people also use their eyes to send out various messages — social cues, which are not limited to extreme actions like winking or rolling one’s eyes, but also to convey emotion and how a message is meant to be understood. But the significance of maintaining of eye contact goes beyond that: Eye contact is associated with honesty, and also empathy.
Conversely, failing to make and maintain eye contact is frequently read as being deliberately rude or even disrespectful, being disinterested or not remaining attentive throughout the conversation, or even being unfriendly, as conversation partners wouldn’t be able to pick up your emotions through your eyes. At worst, the lack of eye contact is interpreted as having something to hide, being dishonest or lacking empathy.
Note, however, that eye contact is not the same across all cultures: a fact frequently omitted when people go as far as demanding eye contact and insisting on their own views of it. In some cultures, looking someone directly in the eye or maintaining eye contact for too long can be a sign of disrespect, especially if social or age hierarchy are part of the equation.
So, the issue that autistic people face is that eye contact is expected, and not adhering to it means being misconstrued as any of the above: inattentive, rude, dishonest. It follows that there are consequences to this too, for example when trying to make friends, when talking to persons of authority, and when trying to get a job. What’s more, autistic people who have difficulty with it are repeatedly asked to make eye contact over the course of their life — because it’s the social norm, because it’s expected, because, because, because. And they aren’t just asked, they’re often forced to make eye contact: through negative consequences, through authority (parents, teachers, etc.) and even through behaviour therapy.
When trying to comply with the social pressure to make eye contact, autistic people usually cope by focusing on a different part of the face rather than the eye (though that still doesn’t block out all the other visual input) or by only making eye contact sporadically. Ironically, that can still earn disapproval, followed by an explicit demand to stop averting their gaze. When actually looking people in the eye and attempting to maintain eye contact, their gaze can be very stiff and intense: a clear stare rather than an actual conveying and receiving of information.
What people who demand those on the spectrum to make eye contact against their will miss or refuse to acknowledge is this: They’re making those demands without sufficiently understanding the struggle and stress involved on the side of autistic people. They ask for attention while equating eye contact with attentiveness, and refuse to understand that in this case, the demanded act and the desired result have reverse effects. It’s also quite unfair, considering that looking away when thinking or trying to solve a problem (so as to be able to focus better) isn’t behaviour exclusive to those on the spectrum. The fact that autistic people generally focus better and thus prefer looking away especially when listening should then come as a step-up from that behaviour, rather than be treated as something incomprehensible.
(Something interesting I came across while writing this are musings on autistic people’s avoidance of direct perception due to hypersensitivity, and possible superior peripheral vision compared to most other people. That’d explain why looking away when focusing benefits autistic people twofold!)
In group settings, Haru often listens to people while carrying on with what he’s doing at the time rather than looking at them, and can effortlessly keep track of conversations while doing so. This is reminiscent of autistic people often preferring indirect perception. From my observations, Haru is also more likely to look at someone else’s face from the start during group conversations (in which he mainly participates passively), whereas he breaks eye contact early into the conversation if they’re one-on-one. From an autistic viewpoint, the difference would be that looking at a person is easier when their eyes aren’t on you specifically, which avoids the issue of getting overwhelmed by visual input caused by eye movement as well as the feeling of being exposed.
Haru mostly breaks or avoids eye contact on purpose in emotionally intense situations both positive and negative: when he’s about to express something that means a lot to him, when he’s about to open up about his own feelings, when he’s upset or confused, and when he’s abashed. In all these cases, he struggles to assign words to what he’s trying to say, to express his feelings properly so that they are understood, and often doesn’t find them, and instead participates quietly. For autistic people, emotionally charged moments can be overwhelming not just because they’re trying to make sense of their own feelings and trying to figure out how to convey them, but also due to the input of their environment. Hypersensitivity to other people’s moods and emotions can heavily interfere with one’s own thought process.
Interestingly, there are one-on-one moments where Haru deliberately makes and holds eye contact — and those are indeed very intense moments in the series. They usually happen when Haru speaks up specifically to comfort or to thank someone: situations he recognizes as being important. Rather than undermining the points made above, I can tell you that occasionally making eye contact with people you’re familiar with comes much more easily when there isn’t any pressure to conform and when you feel comfortable with the conversation partner, which makes you much more willing to acknowledge their needs and their way of connecting as well. Communication is a two-way process, and being understanding of each other is what strikes the balance.
Sensitivity to visual input and to touch is explained under Sensitivity & Sameness. Further aspects of Haru’s behaviour during conversations and the personal distance he keeps at times are explored under Connecting and Empathy, whereas anything pertaining to Haru’s voice is summarized under Speech, with both distance and voice being aspects of nonverbal communication.