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Making Eye Contact in the City

Making Eye Contact in the City published on No Comments on Making Eye Contact in the City

I grew up in a smaller city of 25 000 people. This city wasn’t the safest of places despite its small population, but nonetheless people were generally friendly. It was pretty common to smile and say, “hello” to people if you were out for a walk, regardless of if you knew them or not.

For university, I moved to what I would consider a medium size city of 90 000 and everyone was also rather friendly. Then, after returning from my time in France, I moved to the big city.

In the big city, friendliness can take a back seat. In the big city, you don’t say, “hello” to people. In fact, you don’t even make eye contact. If you’re feeling like some human comradery, you might give a person a little sideways glance, but you don’t look for too long lest they notice you looking. They probably wouldn’t though since they’re so busy avoiding you. This avoidance is perhaps the most pronounced during the winter with the early nights. When it’s dark out, people are even more distrusting. On nice, bright, sunny days people are friendlier and may even venture a pleasantry on the weather. Of course, the older you are the friendlier you are to strangers, I think. My parents’ and grandparents’ generations are friendly, but perhaps that’s because they lived their lives in smaller towns. Two factors that affect your friendliness to strangers on the street: where you grew up and age.

I live in an apartment building where the rules of the big city streets have made their way into the building. When we were moving in, no one welcomed us- although it might be because there’s such a high turnaround of people moving in and out that no one really knows who the newcomers are. Except for the older ladies in the building, I haven’t talked much to anyone else. Even when I pass people in the hallways, they avoid making eye contact. I try to make a point to say, “Hello.” When I say, “hello”, they respond with surprise and are taken off guard, their eyes suddenly stop looking at the ground and meet mine. Then, if they’re quick enough, they mumble a little “hello” in response before continuing to keep their eyes on the ground. I always get a kick out of this which is perhaps why I make a point of greeting them in the first place.

This big city culture became even more apparent to me when I returned to visit the city where I had gone to university. In one weekend, I ran into two people that I knew and stopped to chat with them. I said, “Hello” to pretty much everyone in the park and got a “hello” back complete with eye contact and smile.

One of my coworkers was talking to children about humanizing people by smiling at them and speaking with them. After her talk, the rest of us cautioned her about encouraging kids to talk to strangers. When I was growing up, I was taught: Never talk to strangers. This next generation may be taught: Never look at, smile at, or talk to strangers- at least in the city.

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