I am pleasantly surprised when a young person looks me in the eye when we pass on the street. Typically what happens is at a distance I see the child or teenager notice me, but by the time we come astride, they are looking at the ground. Sometimes I will try to catch their attention with a greeting, but more often I let them pass. I don’t remember being like this when I was their age, a teenager or younger, but I could have been. I don’t remember being otherwise. Are they just too self-conscious at that age? Do they meet the eyes of peers? Even ones they don’t know? At what age, do people start holding their heads up and meeting the eyes of strangers? When did I? I don’t know.
This business of eye contact fascinates me. We express volumes with it. Be it with strangers or people we know. So much goes on at an unconscious level but I try to make it a more conscious affair. That is, I try to look people in the eye when I’m just going about my day. When I board the bus, I remove my sunglasses as I approach the driver. Even if we don’t actually make eye contact, it seems respectful to do so. At sales counters, I try to make eye contact at least once, to acknowledge the other person. To make the encounter less impersonal, less robotic. I think it matters. For all I know, there’s a study floating around out there right now that says or will say, 3 seconds of eye contact adds another 10 minutes to your life or creates a tiny surge of endorphins or protects people from cardiovascular disease.
We look strangers in the eye to size them up: friend or foe? Or something inbetween? Does this person want something from me? Such as money or sex? Do they intend me harm? Do they need directions? Are they campaigning? Are they disturbed? Do they think they know me? Do they think I’m attractive? Do I think they are attractive? Is this a good person? Are they dead inside? What kind of life have they had? In seconds, we try to answer these questions. It’s primitive.
Someone holds your gaze a little too long and all bets are off. Why is that person looking at me? It’s a challenge. It’s an invitation. It’s a warning. It’s a compliment. It’s trouble. Quickly, but quickly, you need to figure out which. It’s as if your ship’s controls go on yellow alert: this could be a problem. Or this could be something good. (I must say in my life it’s more often the former but I try to keep an open mind.)
Eye contact with animals can be almost or just as interesting given your own inclinations. But they are that much more inscrutable. I have an IDEA what the squirrel making eye contact with me is thinking – if we can agree they do think – but I can’t be certain. If it’s your pet, chances are you more likely know. Then again, I’ve been taken aback how unattuned to their pets some people can be. I see them project lots of things onto the animal, but when I look at the pet, or into its eyes, I don’t see it or I see something else instead.
I always notice in conversation whether the other person is looking into my eyes or not. Some people address their words to the ground, or off to the side of you, or to who-knows-what, as it becomes clear their attention is wandering or they aren’t socially adept. Some can’t hold your gaze. I am aware that I look at people fairly intently, but I understand it’s important to look away at intervals and not freak them out (unless I have reason to want to freak them out, ahem). I think it’s respectful to look into someone’s eyes but I’ve learned the hard way it can signal that I’m more interested in the person or what’s being said than I actually am, so I’m more careful to align my eye contact with my level of interest.