What happens when eye contact gets weird

I was going to rant about girls. I’m not proud of it, but there we are.

It was going to focus on girls I didn’t know, people I’ve met passing through the Atrium every Wednesday or sitting down to meals a few tables away, and the moments where they’ve met my gaze or haven’t. I was going to wax philosophical about our existence as social beings, about my sadness in these moments where I wondered what I’d done to ruin our chances at being friends. I was going to encourage everyone to smile at strangers. I was going to conveniently forget that there are things I don’t see or experience, that not everyone enjoys the same privileges I do, that smiling at the wrong stranger at the wrong time can open the door to so much ugly.

And then, a few weeks ago, I went to a conference in the Cities. One morning early in the week, as I sat talking quietly with a friend in our hotel lobby, a man walked by. He was about my age and a bit bigger than me, and we had the customary moment of eye contact. Then I looked away, to politely indicate that the moment had ended, as I have done my entire life. And the man kept looking.

He crossed the lobby, came closer to me and continued to stare, directly at me, only me, and never spoke a word. I looked back up with a less friendly expression and he did not take the hint. In fact he smiled, with the smallest, most disturbing smile I have ever received. And he took a step closer. My friend and I stopped talking. I fixed the man with the coldest stare I had and he never relented, looking into my eyes and then down the length of my body, back up again. He took another step and this time I felt real fear. I have never been a violent man, never been in a fight, but had he taken two more steps, had he gotten any closer with those dead eyes locked on me, I would have hit him, and I would have hit hard.

Instead he took a step to the side, and then another. I watched him stalk behind a corner, staring and smiling quietly at other people as he went along. I hadn’t realized how tense I’d become. I’d been dressed nicely for the day, and where I’d felt assuredness before I now felt a twinge of shame, revulsion. The feeling resurfaced every time I saw him shuffling around at the conference. I don’t know if he continued to look at me these times because every time I saw him, I avoided his gaze until he was gone.

It speaks to something I’d never really considered before: we all want control. We want to dictate, we want to parcel out who gets our time and our money and yes, even our eyes. As an assertive person, and – much as I hate to say it – as a man, I usually get my wish. But for that brief moment, I no longer had control, and it terrified me. Part of it was the discomfort, the fear of being subject to unwanted advances. But there was a darker part. There was a deep sliver of fear that I have been a part of these events before and not known it, that it has shown up in my “missed connections” in the Atrium, in a girl’s intentional looks away – that I have been even for one second on the contributing end, that I have been someone’s source of fear.

I don’t know the man’s story. Maybe he had social difficulties, maybe his communication was difficult or impaired, maybe it was a failed form of humor. And maybe, just like me, he was simply looking for a friendly face in a trivial moment.

But when I was on the receiving end of a stare that I did not want, it didn’t matter if his intentions were the purest in the world. Those thirty seconds in the lobby made me want to scream, fight, and run, and they made me want to never look or smile at anyone, ever again.

I don’t want to live in a world that includes that hotel lobby. But I have to accept that I do. And that realization isn’t going to stop me from looking at people and trying to make connections. But it is going to make me a little more aware of the ways in which I’m looking at people and, hopefully, it will enable me to look at every person I meet in the right way.

The way they want to be.

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