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Who're You Looking At? Not Me, Argues One Disappointed Writer

In behavior on December 20, 2009 at 8:21 am
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Do you  still look people in the eye?

This interesting essay in today’s New York Times despairs at people’s growing unwillingness to make, and hold, eye contact with the writer, Sally Friedman. (It’s a new Times spot, open to freelancers called Complaint Box, which invites weekly rants.)

And where would we be without the steady gaze, the flirtatious glance, the shared raised eyebrow?

Of course, urban streets and elevator etiquette practically forbid eye contact — just try getting some meaningful “I’ll look at you/you look back at me” going, and you’re likely to be dismissed as a weirdo. But I live in a small town without a single elevator building. And even here in Moorestown, N.J., ranked No. 1 on Money magazine’s list of the best places to live in 2005, only a neutral nod is acceptable on our quaint little Main Street.

Time was when I would walk this same street and look directly at the person coming toward me. Not these days when suspicion seems to have spread like some virus.

But I don’t give up easily. I continue to seek out other eyes during intermissions at theaters, hoping I’m not committing some venial social sin by invading anyone’s personal bubble of space. To date, few have sought mine.

I wonder if her feeling of invisibility is age-related  — the writer says she is a grandmother — as so many women report feeling hastily and suddenly  shoved to the social margins once they pass the age of 50, 60 or beyond. I love looking at people, and usually enjoy it when I catch someone’s gaze. It’s tricky, for women, as a glance, depending on your age and culture, can be mis-read as a come-on or invitation.

But what a loss if this writer’s fears are real. To feel acknowledged is to remain part of the community.

  1. I rarely look at women older than 50, yet I’m way past 60. Women age faster. I don’t, however, look at women in their twenties either. While their bodies may be firm and perky in all the right places, I know that something is missing on the top floor. Show me a woman between 30 and 45 and I’ll admire (make that stare at) her furtively until she disappears into my wishful dreams.

  2. Wow. That sort of reductionist thinking is…efficient.

    But what if you’re wrong? What if the 45-year-old is really a youthful looking 58-year-old? We exist. What does that do to your certain perceptions/judgments about whom or what you find attractive? And what happens to a woman at 46 that so cruelly and irredeemably reduces her to invisibility in your world?

    I am biting my tongue very, very hard to be polite.

    I look at everyone, of all ages. You’re missing out on a lot.

    • Caitlin, there are exceptions to every rule, of course. But I think men, collectively, and in general, prefer what I mapped out for you. It’s in the nature of the beast. (This limited attraction may have something to do with a woman’s reproductive cycle as well. Nature’s strange, for sure.)
      Are you a youthful 58-year-old? Is this the problem? I promise you that I look yearningly and faithfully at you several times a day. So, don’t bite your tongue just yet; we may need it!

  3. Surely not every man is ready to procreate with every woman he’s looking at. Shriek. Women choose, too, y’know!

    I’m older than you think. Tread carefully! :-)

  4. I’m not saying every man is ready to procreate with every woman he sees, Caitlain; I’m positing that Mother Nature may be the reason that most men find women from 30 to 45 attractive, because it is written into their genes, not their jeans.
    I shall tread carefully, but I shall tread endlessly–even if you’re in your 80s.;>)

  5. Fascinating that you questioned the writer’s age. I understand … but I’m not sure I’d have drawn the same conclusion from her article.

    I like to engage with people (and yes … I’m pushing a certain age … and maybe palavering wouldn’t give me a second glance). But I find that the expression on someone’s face is a greater determining factor than the number of wrinkles when it comes to eye contact.

    An open, engaging or friendly face (as opposed to a grinning idiot) seems to thaw the chill. I can get a smile out of a young/ old man or woman. We’re human and we like to connect. A friendly face is the first step.

    Maybe it’s more a matter of “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine”?

    And by the way, I’m a New Yorker … not a small-town person. My beliefs still hold.

    • Joan, I agree with all that you write; I was stating only generalities. A glint in a woman’s eye, a coy smile, a flirtacious glance, a soft or, to the contrary, raspy voice, or an intelligent physiognomy–no matter her age–are all provocative.

  6. I really think this phenomenon has more to do with safety and the advent of technology than anything else. As to the former, we are bombarded with newscasts about gun-toting predators with hair-trigger fingers, shooting at imagined slights. Not knowing who those people are, we avoid everyone’s gaze. And we have personal gadgets that allow us to disengage in public places, making it harder to make eye contact.

    • This is more how I interpreted the excerpt above … not so much about attractiveness, flirtations or sexuality, but more about the de-socialization in our culture.

      It could be a fear-based reaction, but I’d attribute it more to drive-thru windows, FaceBook and smart phones. Our technology … while supposedly bringing us all together has a the paradoxical effect of creating more isolation. Interpersonal communication, but without the person.

      Maybe we’ve become more comfortable with the text message than the person sending it. Maybe we’re not avoiding eye contact … but contact in general.

  7. imho, I agree that safety is a factor…and technology as well, which is what the writer pointed out. I loathe, absolutely loathe, people’s attachment to their Blackberries and Iphones; they sit at the same table with a friend or partner and ignore them. They literally refuse to even look up.

    joan, I’m with you on this one. I live near NYC and spend a fair bit of time there, so I know the official etiquette. Yet I find more, and more fun, eye contact there than many other cities.

    I think you’re right — people await your expression to know if it’s safe or welcome to catch your eye and smile. Few things can so easily, free, make a day more pleasant when it happens.

  8. It’s a really sad day if, joan, (and you may well be right) we’re becoming more contact-avoidant. Interpersonal interaction can quickly, as we know, go south if someone misunderstands or takes offense. I guess it’s easier if you can’t see their expression or body language. But life without eye-to-eye contact means no one is ever going to fall in love. I guarantee it.

    • Caitlain, please don’t be so cynical. Without this sort of electronic communication, you and I would never have engaged. I could have walked the streets forever, gone to one party after another, accepted every dinner invitation offered to me, and I still would never have “met” you. I can speak only for myself–but I’m not so singular–when I say that this format and those of a similar nature provide hope for the weary hearts who have suffered many disappointments. Moreover, by the words you write, I already know much about you–and I am excited about it.

  9. palavering, thanks for your kind words. I agree, of course, that this sort of contact has value, both intellectual and emotional. BUT…for a real relationship of more personal intimacy, at some point, do you not think it must move off-line and into the “real” world? While there are legendary epistolary-only relationships due to circumstance or money or distance or…I fear “faux” intimacy.

    I’ve now met three fellow True-Slanters in person for lunch. It was great each time. But who knew? Maybe we would have turned into trolls face to face. It’s a calculated risk.

    I met my sweetie on-line, so I certainly appreciate on-line connection! While some of who we were was revealed in initial emails and calls, it was only face to face we could make an informed (or heartfelt) decision about whether we had something in real-time as well.

    All writers are cynical enough to know that we “show” well in print. Or we’d have to do something else for a living! By this I do not mean to suggest I offer here a “faux” me, as I do not. But I can write this dishevelled physically and still, one hopes, be alluring on-screen. Hmmmmmm.

    • Yes, Caitlain, I agree that a face-to-face rendevous is inelectable for true romance to replace the “virtual” attraction. But it dispells the notion that online flirting cannot lead to a budding friendship or a romantic weaving of two hearts, doesn’t it?
      I need to return, however, to my original comment: I was attracted to you more than your article (at first). It was your gleaming eyes, the brilliant intellect reflected by them, the smile that said you are kind, warm and cuddly. But you also looked under forty-five. But now that I “know” you better, I have to say that your age wouldn’t matter. And I have to say thank you for your generous attention, Caitlain.

  10. I do it all the time, then back it up with a smile, sort of like saying “hi, nice to see/look at you.”

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