On Eye Contact and Human Connections

There’s a video going around online about a group of people encouraging strangers to make eye contact with someone for 60 seconds.

If you haven’t seen the video, take a look:

Honestly, this social experiment brought tears to my eyes. People rediscovering humanity just by looking into someone’s eyes? It was beautiful. I was so amazed at how powerful the sense of human connection was, even from behind a computer screen. 

Here’s the thing about eye contact: We tend to avoid it at almost any cost. Looking into someone’s eyes for an extended period forces us to open ourselves up. In a way, it requires us to trust whoever we’re making the contact with. And that’s hard to do. We don’t look at strangers on the street like they’re people– we tend to give them the same wary caution that we would to a stray dog. Who knows what they could be thinking or doing? What if they try to take my wallet? What if they’re on drugs? As a general rule, we tend to jump to the worst possible conclusion when we see a stranger on the street.

But this experiment broke down those assumptions. It made strangers human again. And I thought it was beautiful. So a friend and I decided to try it ourselves today.

First we sat in a public area that often has a lot of foot traffic. After sitting for about 30 minutes without anyone walking by, we remembered that it was Sunday and that our city doesn’t have a lot of pedestrians on the weekends. So we moved to the mall, which was crowded with people walking from store to store.

We were there for nine minutes before we were told to leave.

The security guard didn’t really have an answer for me when I asked him why. Only a mumbled “you just can’t do that here.”  But I guess I didn’t really need an answer. I already knew. We were making people uncomfortable. Someone saw our sign and assumed we were selling something. Or protesting something. Or scamming people in some way. I don’t really know what people thought we were doing. I only know that most of them didn’t even look at us. No one made any eye contact, and only a couple read our sign. The one person that did speak to us (other than the security guard) was only curious if we were doing this for free. Everyone else just ducked their heads and shuffled past, giving us a wide berth.

I don’t know how to express my disappointment in today’s experiment. I’m disappointed that no one saw this as something potentially positive. I’m disappointed that none of the people I invited to participate even bothered to show up (except for one. Thanks, Wendy!)

But mostly I’m disappointed because I expected this outcome. I didn’t actually think that anyone would want to make eye contact with a stranger. But I so desperately wanted to believe that I was wrong. I wanted to believe that there were other people out there who understand the need for human connections, and were as aware of that lack in our lives as I am. I wanted this experiment to help other people rediscover their humanity, but I think that mostly I just wanted to prove to myself that there were still people out there who actually wanted to.

Maybe it was the locations we picked. Or the day. Maybe it’s the city we live in. Or the generation. Or the world. I’m not sure. Maybe if we try again in the Spring we’ll have better luck. I hope so.

Hope so. Hope is a word I use a lot in my life when it comes to talking about other humans. I still have so much faith in humanity– so much certainty that the majority of people are good and wonderful. But it seems that every time I try to actually test that faith in some manner– I come up short. I’ve always said that the majority of people want to help others, but on the rare occasions I’ve sent out a cry for help, my message box remains eerily silent. I still say that people want human connections and want to see the good in other people, but that second chair today remained conspicuously empty until we were forced to leave.

If you’ve read my blog before, you know what I think about the concept of Faith. Faith is something that I feel should be examined and questioned constantly, because if it cannot stand up to scrutiny, then it cannot truly be strong enough to support the beliefs you pile on top of it. My faith is in humanity. So every day I read the news and I hear the stories and still that faith has always stood against the crashing waves of doubt that the turmoils of life have thrown against it.

And it still does. At the end of everything, I still think that humanity is within all of us. And that we care about other people. Even strangers.

I don’t know why no one came to participate today. I don’t know why we were asked to leave after only nine minutes. I don’t know why those groundings of support I often look for seem to be so absent. But I do know that I stepped out my door with a sign and a chair today because I wanted to learn something about what humanity has become.

I refuse to believe that what I found is all there is.

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