Making eye contact with another person is crucial to the human connection and establishing a relationship. Averting one’s eyes makes you appear suspicious, furtive, unapproachable, and even dangerous. Or it can communicate to strangers that you are insecure, vulnerable, and an easy target for perpetrators.
However, when you look someone in the eye, there is an immediate connection, and an exchange of information. Your brain processes this information, sending electrical, chemical, and hormonal signals through your body how to react. Eye contact gives you an instantaneous respond as to whether this person is a friend or foe, safe or threatening. That’s why it is so dangerous to walk around in public with your head buried in your cell phone.
First of all, it’s not safe. Second, it desensitizes you to the human experience and the human connection. Third, it’s creepy. But a few days ago I experienced something that was beyond creepy.
I went to the grocery store with my husband to pick up a few things. Much has changed in the past several weeks due to the COVID19 pandemic, and we’re all used to the masks, the social distancing, the hand washing, etc. But I wasn’t prepared for what I saw in the store that day.
Just a few days earlier, people were looking at each other, making eye contact, and even smiling at each other. The unspoken message was, “Hey, this is kind of weird, but we’re all in this together and this soon shall pass.”
But on this particular day people were social distancing, wearing their masks, and avoiding eye contact. Many of them were averting their eyes, furtively looking away and even turning their backs when another person walked by them. It was creepy, incredibly disturbing, and dehumanizing. I felt like I was in a store with a bunch of zombies, or maybe even a few mass murderers. People behaved as if each one knew that the other had a deep, dark, horrible secret that they were trying to hide. I couldn’t wait to get out of the store.
On the way out one woman stopped at the entrance to dig in her purse, creating a back log of shoppers behind her. We tried to go around her, but we were trapped. I glanced at the police officer guarding the entrance, but she turned her back on me when I looked at her. So much for guarding the store. Shoppers were trying to get in, others were trying to get out, no one was looking at each other and no one said a word. Not even an “excuse me.” It was surreal.
When we finally broke loose and made it outside I was disheartened and depressed. Is this where we are now as a society? That we are so disconnected from each other that we walk around like zombies or robots, not looking at each other and not speaking to one another? What has happened to the human connection?
But then magic happened. As we pulled the bags out of the cart, a man walked briskly around the corner, saw us with a free cart, looked me in the eye, gave me a big smile and said, “Are you done with this?” “Yes,” I replied, “Here, let me clean it off for you.” And I whipped out my spray bottle of alcohol from my purse. He continued to smile at me, and still holding my gaze said, “Nah, I’m good!” I sprayed the cart anyway.
That man made my day. Because in that simple encounter, he lifted my spirits, and restored my faith in humanity and human dignity. All because he made eye contact with me. And gave me a smile.