16 March 2011

a social experiment: eye contact

Today, on a whim, I decided to conduct a social experiment, because academia is seriously lacking in the whimsy department. This subject of this study is not exactly serious either. It was just a chance for me to quell a curiosity I have had for a while. Also, it gave me the chance to be a creeper.

I have nothing against big cities. I grew up in one, I'm studying abroad in one, and I'm planning to live in one permanently after graduation. With that said, I do think that life in a big city has contributed to my paranoia. When I see someone sitting on a sidewalk, I instinctively look away. I don't engage easily in conversations with strangers, and I most certainly don't permit people I don't know very well to come into contact with anything on my person, let alone my body.

While I was wandering around downtown today, I was thinking about public transportation. More specifically, I was thinking about the way in which most people behave. Even though a high concentration of people are in a confined space with very limited sources of visual interest, people's eyes (mine included) wander nonetheless. Perhaps these people are bored and are seeking something at which to look to pass the time. Maybe they find the map of subway routes fascinating. But the bottom line is that people avoid eye contact. It's funny to me how much effort people take to make sure that they don't lock eyes with a stranger. So, true to form, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to see what would happen if I tried to make eye contact with as many people as possible.

Rather than ride bart aimlessly for hours (and also because I didn't want to pay for this experiment), I walked around San Francisco with a purpose: to observe people's response to my attempts to make eye contact. There was an inherent flaw in this plan: there are so many visual stimuli in a city--store windows, street signs, crazy people--that aren't there in a crowded subway car, but I wanted to try anyways. Besides, it's not like I am a scientist.

I started my journey in the financial district, hugging Chinatown before heading over to tourist central: Westfield Shopping Centre.

At the beginning, it was challenging for me to even conduct my side of the experiment. I hadn't realized how ingrained this behavior was until I actively tried to break it. I felt vaguely voyeuristic, even though I can assure you I was only trying to make EYE contact. After I got over myself, I started participating for real.

To avoid bitchface, I made sure to keep the eyes soft and my mouth in a pleasant smile, not a soulless frown or a maniacal grin. I didn't want anyone to think I was challenging them, nor did I want them to think I was undressing them with my mind. Or plotting their bloody murder. I was just trying to be friendly.

For the most part, the experiment went as expected. The vast majority of people kept eyes their fixed straight ahead, regardless of the fact that both of us knew that I was staring. It's not like ignoring me would make me stop. In fact, in these instances, I stared harder, often slowing down so I could prolong the awkward.

Other people acknowledged that I was staring by (intentionally or not) darting their eyes to lock with mine, then quickly shifting their eyes back to a forward position. I could sense a lot of nervousness with the rapid eye movements, and a lot of people gave me awkward shrugs before snapping their eyes back to their previous position.

Others met my probing eyes and returned my smile, often accompanied by a slight nod or a vocalized greeting. These cases were mostly men and women in business suits, and it was pretty easy to tell that they were natives. My favorite case was an old man who tilted his fedora at me. Where are all the classy guys my age?

Still others looked at me like I was crazy and/or ready to pounce at any moment. I am by no means a threatening person. I am five foot three, weighing in at a whopping 115 pounds. I don't exactly have the physique of a person who could mug another person. Also, I had a latte in one hand and my purse in the other, so even if I wanted to start a fight, I would have to find a place to put down all my stuff, and that would take a while because there is no way in hell anything but the soles of my shoes would touch the sidewalk. Regardless of these facts, I was met with a lot of fear. Even though I made sure I looked as nonthreatening as possible, some people, mostly tourists, stared at my face with widened eyes and looked like they were holding their breath. Sometimes they would take active measures to increase their distance from me. Because someone like me could do a lot of damage.

I was surprised to find that natives were more receptive to my experiment than tourists. I suppose people from here are used to antics of random people on the street. Just today, I tried to make eye contact with a man wearing a medical gown who was singing and skipping down Powell, but he didn't make eye contact with me. I get the sense he was a little preoccupied with his own affairs.

Also, the tourists were probably already antsy about being in a big city, as evidenced by them clutching their bags to their chests or holding hands with everyone in their party, so I doubt a creepy girl smiling at them would do much to ease their anxiety.

So what did I learn from this experiment? Actively making eye contact with strangers is hard. Making people uncomfortable (to a certain degree) is fun. Chai lattes are delicious.

On the train ride home, there weren't enough seats for my mom, my sister and me to all sit comfortably. So, I sat on my sister's lap. An old man sitting across from us smiled and sighed, "That's nice." Needless to say, I stood immediately and avoided eye contact with him until he left.


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