I’ve been working in Manhattan a lot lately, which means a lot more time on the subway. When you’re not used to it, it’s an interesting experience to be crammed into a small space with so many other human beings.
Naturally, it’s a great opportunity to people-watch, but I notice that I often feel a sense of internal conflict as two competing instincts pull me in different directions. On one side, I am drawn to look at my fellow passengers. I think there is research showing that from the time we are born, our gaze is drawn to other people’s faces. But on the other side, it is awkward and uncomfortable to make eye contact with strangers. The social etiquette, at least in New York City, clearly demands that you avoid locking eyes with strangers, and should look away when you do incidentally meet eyes with another person.
Eye contact is a powerful aspect of human communication, and not to be taken lightly. I’ve heard that when two mammals look into each other’s eyes for more than a few seconds, it means they are either about to fight or have sex. No wonder people prefer the security of staring into their smart phones.
But I can’t help but ask myself if this is human nature or an expression of cultural norms that have evolved over centuries. Could another culture exist where strangers happily gaze at each other unburdened by social angst or self-consciousness?
It’s not an easy question to answer. But there are some contextual factors that seem to influence our likelihood to engage in eye contact with those we don’t know:
- Small Town Syndrome. The smaller the town, the more likely people are to engage with a stranger. In small communities, we are more likely to bump into a friend, and so we remain more open to possibilities. In a big city (like New York) we become more risk averse (“stranger danger”) and we keep to ourselves.
- Cultural Norms. There is some variability in how people respond to strangers as you go from country to country. Psychology professor Bill Huitt told me a story of a colleague who was living in Germany and said that “even in small towns, people do not make eye contact or speak in the street unless they are closely acquainted.” When his colleague suggested to a neighbor with same-age children that they should get together for a barbecue one night, the reply was “no, I don’t think so.” In Muslim countries people are expected to lower their gaze with members of the opposite sex. In Japan, they lower their eyes as a sign of deference to a figure of authority. Other countries, such as Greece, Spain, Italy, Mexico, and India, are known for the warmth and friendliness of the people. These citizens are less reserved about making eye contact or starting conversations with strangers.
- Performance anxiety. We may be less likely to make eye contact in a large group because of the added anxiety of our interactions being observed by others. In other words, two people on an elevator may be likely to smile, nod, make eye contact, and perhaps even exchange a few words. With 5 people on the elevator, we are more likely to stare blankly at the wall or look down at our phone to avoid interaction in a public setting. Making eye contact is about risk and vulnerability. It is about exposing ourselves to another person, letting them in. This requires two things: confidence and safety. The more strangers around, the less safety we feel.
There is some research to suggest that a simple gesture of eye contact can make a big impact on the wellbeing of the strangers we come into contact with throughout the day. The simple act of avoidance makes a big impact too. I can’t help but feel like the world would be a better place if we were more open to these kinds of connections.
By Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc)