Eye contact and making new friends

I made four new friends this week. At least, I think I did. I hope I did.

I’d like to discuss that uncertainty.

I was walking to my table in DS on Tuesday when I caught a group of strangers, twenty feet away, staring at me. They did the standard look-away as soon as I returned their stares, and I thought nothing of it. Five seconds later I caught them looking again. The group quickly averted their eyes, again, exchanged glances across their table, and imploded with silent, nervous laughter.

I had two options. I couldn’t return to a time where we hadn’t shared this visual exchange, but I could choose to walk away as they giggled about something I would never know. Or I could approach them, tease out their reasons for staring, blow air on the glowing sparks of a conversation with new faces. I chose to approach. I wanted to know why they were looking, sure, but I was also interested in knowing what made these strangers tick.

The strangers did not necessarily share my feelings.

They didn’t notice my first step in their direction, or maybe they were caught up in their discussion. But on the second step I could feel them look up, and by the time I’d halved the distance between us, I was keenly aware of the fact that not one of the four had actually expected this.

At this point there was no going back, and I think I realized that somewhere in the back of my head. But I could already tell that I had broken some rule. So, if I was already being rude, to give up now would make all that awkwardness in vain. Instead I stuck it out, arrived at the table, gave my friendliest smile and asked how everyone was doing.

They were fine, they said to my face, obligated to look at this intruder but still casting furtive glances at each other, as if to say what great evil have we awoken?

“Were you guys looking at me for a reason?”

This is a very difficult line to ask. First, it can’t sound like an accusation. Second, your voice and facial expression have to match. And, finally, the people might say no, and then remain silent.

Which they did.

What do you do when the world is not prepared to be friends? It is the extrovert’s dilemma, the great injustice of living as a member of a social species that simply must budget its friendships. We have neither the time nor the emotional strength to be socially intimate with the six-billion-plus souls peppered across our spinning ball, and nobody can fault us for picking and choosing. But the moment of disappointment when each party’s choices do not line up can hurt. And even if you share no interests with these people, even if they sit in an area of DS that you have not touched since sophomore year, even if you can tell already that you are fundamentally different, sometimes you just don’t want to give up so easily.

I stuck with it, doing my best to maintain friendly curiosity, and it paid off. A few seconds later, one of them caved. It turns out that they liked my sweater, a joke one that I got for Christmas. I was very happy that they approved, since I’d not worn it in public before and was a little hesitant. This happiness translated to an ease in the conversation, which continued for another minute. As I left I said “see you around.” We may never speak again. But we will very likely see each other as we pass.

We don’t pop bubbles often enough. It might be because sometimes we find unsavory moments within them, or because somebody has worked hard to make that bubble. I still don’t know the effects of my choice to approach these people. They may think I was annoying. I may have ruined their day. Though most likely, I believe they saw the whole thing as I do: a funny moment, a silly little exchange with little to move forward on. We probably won’t become friends, but I do know that for at least this minute, we talked and laughed together.

We cannot be friends with everyone. But I am happy to find that we can at least be friendly.

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