What it Means to Look at Me

I promise that this post isn’t as pretentious as the title (just kidding, maybe it is). The past two weeks have been a bit stressful and so my sass has run off to some secluded island where everyone sings “Let It Be,” while doing the rain dance and drinking from cups of sunshine (aka YELLOWTAIL MOSCATO). As a result, this post is a bit more reflective and serious.

In other words, this post makes it seem as if I have a heart. So brace yo’self, it’s about to get real.

I’ve worked in one of the tallest buildings in the heart of downtown Minneapolis for exactly a month today (happy anniversary to meeee!). To say the least it’s been a bit of an adjustment, going from being a suburbia princess (ha) to a small ant, scurrying along 2nd Avenue and trying to avoid being stepped on.

Though that’s a bit of an exaggeration, it’s a little what it feels like– being tiny, almost invisible. This feeling is amplified when I walk the two blocks from my bus stop to my office building in the morning, and when I reverse the trek at 4:30 in the afternoon. I rinse and repeat that action five days a week. Top this off with feelings of stress with starting a new job, moving twice within three weeks and living in a brand new city, on my own for the first time, you can say that I haven’t been my zippy, sassy self.

The thing I’ve observed the most from my commute from my bus stop on Hennepin Avenue to my office on 6 Ave. S. is this– no one looks at me. Or at each other.

I’m one of those weird people who enjoys making eye contact with others and giving a small grin or a nod in passing. For the entire month that I’ve been making this walk, I can count on two hands how many times someone’s returned my glance. How often someone has nodded or smiled in my direction. Do you know how sad that is? I’m walking around downtown Minneapolis where there are hundreds of people scurrying to work or to the bus stop to go home for the day. And hardly anyone looks up from the sidewalk or their smartphone. Or the other alternative– they make accidental eye contact and quickly look away like I’ve just stepped out of the movie Contagion (shout out to Matt Damon…can we be friends now?).

In all seriousness, though, it’s a lonely feeling. Because to me, eye contact with a stranger is an extremely validating experience. Your friends, your family? They have to look at you, acknowledge you.

But a stranger? They have no obligation to you. They can make that eye contact because they choose to, not because they have to. There’s something special about that. Validating, like I said before.

When someone I don’t know spares a few seconds to look at me and nod or smile or wave it validates my existence as a human. That I’m worth a second of their time. That for a moment, before we go on with our day, we acknowledge that we are both partaking in this tragically beautiful thing called life. That both of our human experiences are worth a glance at least.

Given how I perceive this, imagine how it feels when I go five mornings a week with only one person who looks at me. What does that say?

It says that I’m not worth much. That everyone passing by believes that their own human experience is more important than those they’re passing. That whatever crack they’re staring down on the sidewalk or whatever they’re observing on their Facebook newsfeed is more important than the person right in front of them. Passing them, passing them, passing, them. And their it goes, a missed chance at a human connection.

Am I being dramatic? Sensitive? Maybe. I never said I wasn’t those things.

I will say this, though. I remember reading an article back in high school about a man who was going to jump off a bridge. He gave himself one chance to change his mind- if someone passing by smiled at him instead of ignoring him like usual, he wouldn’t kill himself. Someone did look at him. Smiled at him. And clearly, it changed the trajectory of his life.

I’m not saying that a simple exchange of eye contact could diminish the suicide rate in this country, but I am saying that maybe if we all took a second to acknowledge someone other than ourselves, if we acknowledge someone else who’s struggling, it could make a difference. You’ll never even know which person is struggling or not, who needs that validating glance or smile.

That’s why it’s important to see and look at everyone.

This might not have anything to do with living in a big city either, but rather a societal issue as a whole. In our society today, with social media so prevalent, we have become consumers of ourselves. We’re so in tune to ourselves, what we’ll post on Facebook next, who’s following my on Twitter, etc. It’s good to have self-awareness, but to a point. We’ve become so in tune to ourselves, though, that we shut out the idea of taking a stranger’s presence into account. I don’t think it gets more alarming or sad than that.

Again, this isn’t just Minneapolis. In fact, I remember this happening while walking across campus when I was a college student. It’s just more in your face when you pass about 100 people on your way to and from work everyday.

So, the next time you’re passing someone you don’t know on the street and you debate whether you should look at them, remember this post. Remember the man whose life was saved by a glance and a smile. If you’re asking yourself if a short glance even matters?

Remember, it does.


6 thoughts on “What it Means to Look at Me

  1. You clearly have become too dependent upon the Eau Claire Stare (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Eau%20Claire%20Stare).

    Seriously, though, I’ve lived in both a centralized, walking-focused, mass-transit city (Boston) and a spread-out car city (L.A.), and from what I’ve seen, it’s rare to make eye contact. When you do, people look away like they were embarrassed. And this predates cell phones–if you didn’t have something to read on the T, you just stared at the floor.

  2. Maybe they’re afraid of you. You *do* have that tough gal look about you. 🙂
    Seriously though…nice post and good insights. I’m sure there are many who feel much like you do – may be a good niche for you!

  3. I recently heard a friend give a speech about why people should wear hats. One of the reasons he gave was that it would standardize social interactions: People are generally unsure of how to greet strangers, but a hat tip is a universally understood, non-obtrusive greeting.

    While we’re waiting for hats to catch on, though, I hope the city doesn’t get you too down. I know how off-putting it can be when strangers seem to avoid eye contact, but I hope you don’t measure your self-worth based on such (non-)interactions. You can rest assured that there are people who would love to make eye contact with you and who cherish the time spent talking to you.

    Anyway, thanks for posting. I enjoyed reading this.

  4. Oh, Erin! This breaks my heart a little, but it’s so true about the busy people with the little screens. They have no soul for human interaction. Try making eye contact with people over 40. Hopefully Gen X and the Baby Boomers still remember their manners and know how important it is to make people count by acknowledging each other’s presence.

  5. Great post! I avoid contact! But not on purpose, though. I was raised to bow my head as a sign of respect to my elders, and eye contact is considered ride in my culture. It’s so interesting how we are socialized into what’s considered social customs. You’ve just inspired a blog post! I will have to go write now.

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