12 September 2010

The Art of Making Eye Contact

Most of you who know me know that I am a somewhat backwards person when it comes to being social. Since I now have to walk everywhere I go, I have discovered a new social conundrum that vexes me: When passing someone on the sidewalk, what is the correct procedure? Should one look at the person and smile? Look at the person and nod? Look at the person and say, "Hello," and walk on? Look at the person and say, "Howdy! My name is Zella! I am a junior history and English major, but I am new here. My friends think I will be unemployed after I graduate, but that's only because they're jealous of all of the homework I am assigned. So nice to meet you. I deduce you are heading to the cafeteria, seeing as that's the only thing on campus at this location. I have read every Sherlock Holmes story ever printed; hence, my profound skills in deduction. I am sure nobody else besides Sherlock--we're on a first name basis, Sherlock and I are--and myself would have guessed that you were going to the cafeteria. Did you know Sherlock is still alive? Are you hungry? I recommend the quesadillas. Did I mention I work at the cafeteria? While at work the other day, I slightly burnt my hand on a pizza the other day. See? Isn't that a great scar to have for life on my left index finger? I have a lot of scars. I have always been clumsy and prone to trip on flat surfaces, though tripping isn't what caused me to burn myself. I like your shirt, and that's saying something because I don't usually notice other people's clothing. What did you say your name was? Hey, why are you running away!"

This is driving me crazy! I don't feel compelled to talk to someone I pass on the sidewalk because it's not the same as standing in line with someone, but since passing someone on the sidewalk means you often do make eye contact, I think it's rude to not do anything!

My old strategy of combating this was to look at my shoes or look on the other side of the pavement to avoid making eye contact, primarily because eye contact makes me nervous. I don't like people looking into the windows of my souls. I am afraid of what they will see . . .

But the other day I was walking along the sidewalk, watching other people, when I noticed them doing the same thing as me and it was so obvious that they were not trying to make eye contact! I may not want to look at someone, but I don't want them to know that I don't want to look at them. Therefore, for the past couple of days, I have tried to devise a less obvious way of not looking at people when I walk by them. This has proven tricky, primarily because I never know how the other person will react. There seems to be no one-size-fits-all tactic for meeting people on the sidewalk.

Some people make a point of not looking at me. I am not sure if they are fellow socially awkward souls or if I just look that hideous, but I like these people. I can either look at them and not have to fear making eye contact or I can look away from them and not feel bad for my cowardice. Either way, what little self-esteem I possess emerges intact.

Other people, however, are not as cooperative and insist on looking at me. These people unnerve me. I can't look away because that means I am essentially admitting that I am an asocial moron who has a weird phobia about my soul windows. However, I am never sure what to do when I look at them. At first, I was inspired by watching other people's take on this and thought I had a good solution to the problem. I noticed some random passers-by take care of the problem by nodding at me slightly as I pass by. I think this is a useful non-committal greeting, so I tried using it. Sometimes people return the nod, and we go our happy individual ways. But my nod sometimes gets stared at. I am not sure if these people want me to be more friendly or less friendly or if I just look ridiculous while nodding--a distinct possibility--and have confused them.

So . . . what do I do if they don't want me to nod at them? Maybe the nod is too non-committal. I have tried smiling at people. Usually this nets me a smile in return. Sometimes I get a glare in return. If I could figure out who was going to glare at me, I'd glare at them first, but life doesn't work that way.

I don't feel right glaring at someone without provocation, so sometimes I just settle for a slight smile, so it's not quite so happy but is still not unfriendly. This seems to work, most of the time, but, again, you always encounter the glaring types who are apparently not pleased with this.

Smiles can have several meanings, so maybe these people are just unsure of what I am smiling about. Do they not know I am smiling at them? Do they think I am snickering at them? Do they think I am going to mug them? I decided that I should announce my intentions, so they would know that I am just being friendly. But . . . I am not out-going enough to greet someone I don't know verbally, and I have been on the receiving end of this one and have mixed-feelings about it. A "Hello!" or even a "Nice day, isn't it?" are more than okay with me, but I feel trapped when someone thinks that because I happen to be at the same intersection as them entitles me to hear his or her's life story. I only say "Hi!" to someone if they initiate it by acknowledging my smile or nod with a smile or nod in turn. Yet this strikes me as overkill because I have already greeted them and greeting them again makes me feel intrusive.

I really don't think I have any other recourse besides these meager options listed above, so for now I have settled on waiting for the other person to see me and then seeing what they do before I respond in turn. If they don't look at me, I don't look at them. If they smile or nod at me, I smile or nod at them. If they say "hello!" to me, I say "hello" to them. If they glare at me, I look away and pretend to not see them. If they run up to me and decide that we're going to be the bestest of friends because I am going to lunch at the same time they are leaving the cafeteria, I run like a track star in the opposite direction. *sigh* The perils of social engagements . . .

What's your method for making eye contact? Or avoiding eye contact, for that matter?


  1. Wow! What a minefield!

    I don't think I can advise you, but I can share what I've observed (for what it's worth). As far as I can see, it seems to depend an awful lot on context and culture.

    For example, it seems that people in big cities tend to avoid eye contact, whereas if you pass someone on a track in the middle of the country and you are clearly the only two human beings for miles around then I think it would be blatantly rude not to acknowledge each other.

    Countries seem to have different expectations too. The British on the whole are a lot more reserved. The corner of Canada where I live now is very friendly and complete strangers greet each other quite happily as they pass in the street.

    I think a lot of it boils down to how safe people feel. So maybe you could follow your gut instinct. Is the environment safe or threatening? You may not want to go smiling at everyone on a crowded subway in a big city where everyone is furiously avoiding eye contact with everyone else. That could get you mugged.

    But if the college campus feels safe, and if you happen to make eye contact, then why not try smiling? If they scowl back, what's the harm? But they might smile back, and you never know, you might have just brightened someone's day.

  2. @Botanist: Thanks! You've actually put my mind at ease, which is no easy feat! This is a pretty rural area and is located in part of the U.S. where most people do smile and wave at strangers. I think that's why the ones who glare at me stump me. I'm not quite sure what to make of their reaction. Maybe they're from a different part of the country . . . The campus feels pretty safe. I am a neurotic person by nature, and I feel safe walking around by myself at night. Hehe I think I'll take your advice and try not to overthink this. :D

    By the by, I see on your profile that you're from England. I am a bit of an Anglophile, so, if you don't mind me asking, what part of England are you from? :)

    Thanks for commenting! :)

  3. I have this *exact* problem Zella! Gosh, we get more nerd-twin-ier by the week. xD

    I never know whether to smile or make eye contact or ignore or any combination of the above when I walk past someone, and every scenario is rather different. I too am rather hesitant to make eye contact; sometimes I almost feel as if allowing them access to the windows of my soul will share with them my thoughts, which I'm generally rather paranoid about sharing. I'm so weird. xD

    I agree with what Botanist said about culture in different areas. When I go to Disneyland here in CA, a place filled with people, eye contact between strangers (even in line for rides) is a low occurrence. At Disneyworld in Florida, however, I was shocked by the much more common eye contact. :D

  4. You're welcome, Zella Kate. I'm from Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, and actually not from England at all (as any true Guern would be quick to point out). But still part of the British Isles so I guess that counts :-)

    If you want to follow up in more detail, feel free to message me on CC (Botanist there too).

  5. I hate making eye contact with a burning passion. Like you, I don't want people seeing into my soul for fear of what they might see :P

    Even today in math class, I was talking to a guy and he's like, "Why do you keep looking away from me?" And I actually admitted, "I hate making eye contact with people. Sorry." Of course, everytime I see him now, he attempts to make awkward eye contact with me.

    Anyway, I have the same problem when walking down the street. I never know if I should nod or say hello to people or what. But I'm slowly learning that it's a small town courtesy to nod or say hello to everyone you pass. So I do. Though I still don't make eye contact :P

  6. During passing period, I just rush from class to class, keep my head down, and speed walk, occasionally muttering under my breath or saying as politely as my annoyed attitude will allow, "Excuse me!"
    I keep my head down and rush because I don't want to be late but also because I just don't like making conversation with people I don't know. If I am introduced, sure. If we have same classes, sure. During passing period, though, I ignore everyone and carry on my way.
    Yeah, I'm a bit rude. I know.

  7. Eh? Maybe I should stop being to friendly then. O.o Well, whenever I pass someone I always look, if not at their eye, then at least at their face. I wear a friendly expression, and most of the time, I mean it. If they say hi, then I say hi back. Most of the time though, they look away or down, so I guess I don't have to deal with that. As soon as they pass me, I count to three, then turn around to make sure they're still walking away and not turning around to rob me or something. Mostly I deal with eye contact to make sure they're not up to something like robbing people they pass...if the world was safer, then I'd be a lot more shy as well. But it's not, so...

  8. @Feathery: Hehe Our nerd twinnidness is quite impressive, isn't it? :D

    @Botanist: Oh, that's so neat! :)

    @Emma: I have had awkward conversations with people too because of my fear of eye contact. I can see the look on their face and know they are wondering what my problem is. :D

    @Lola: I have noticed muttering is quite effective, especially because they can't quite figure out what you're saying. ^^

    @Sky: I really like your method of counting to 3 and then ensuring they're not trying to rob you. I am going to start using it. :)

    Thanks to all of you for commenting and my apologies for taking so long to respond! :)