The Taboo of Eye Contact

by Vicki on August 9, 2013

I had the opportunity to travel a bit this week…. Something I don’t do very often. Being out of my usual surroundings, one facet of human behaviour was especially salient to me: In most situations in downtown Seattle it is not socially acceptable to make eye contact with oncoming pedestrians or when in line with other people waiting for a service.

I naturally did both lots….. It is just who I am and how I interact with the world. But by day two I’d definitely caught on that I was making people feel uncomfortable.

I had two thoughts about this tendency to avoid in person contact:
A) Lots of the active avoiders appeared to be connected to others virtually via their smart phones and tablets – there is a desire for connection. Just with those who are known and in a virtual manner.

B) There appears to be a significant number of people struggling in this beautiful city. Lots of folks who appear to be homeless, struggling with mental health and/or addiction issues. It makes me fearful for those on the fringes when I think of the tendency to avoid eye contact. That is how people connect, how you come to see strangers as friends, how you come to care about the experience of ‘others’. How you see someone is joyful or in trouble.

There is a bright and hopeful side to this observation…… While in Seattle we had the opportunity to attend several ball games. Sitting at the baseball stadium I realized that eye contact was welcomed, that people were cheering, talking to one another and slapping each other on the back (actual physical contact!!!!! Holy cow!!!!). These people had a socially constructed common connection and they were joyfully taking advantage of it.

I’m not really sure why we need a “reason” (although I’m certain there are bodies of research that explore this). We need connection. Period. It makes us thrive as people, as families and as communities.

Throw caution to the wind….. Get out there and make some eye contact. Chances are you’ll make some people uncomfortable.. But I’m betting lots are secretly craving a look and a smile.

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