Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

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Posted by shannonclark on March 3, 2003

Eye contact
or do I make too much of it and may be mugged someday?

This weekend, after mostly not watching TV at all, I finally relaxed briefly Sunday night, ate some dinner, and watched random shows. Which included one on, I think, the Learning Channel that included instructions of a sort on what to do in a lot of different situations. Including possible muggings, being held by gunpoint by a crazed co-worker and other nice possible situations.

The instructions included a number of ones which I fundementally do not agree with (though perhaps the “experts” know something I do not – I’m not an expert).

First, in both scenarios they emphasized the importance of “avoiding eye contact” – made a very big deal of this, repeated it many times, even had an “expert” on that was a talking head (head shot only) and said that “avoiding eye contact is a primative gesture that indicates passiveness and submission” – which they claimed would lead to a lowered risk of being beaten or shot.

More on this later.

The second item was in the case of a man with a gun pointed at you “do what he says” – i.e. because he has the gun just do what you are told. The implication of their advice being that not only is this of course the best action, but that because they have the gun they control the situation – and thus your actions are now basically out of your own control.

I should explain something here, in many ways I am a hard line existentialist (like Sartre but not his communist leanings) – that is, I hold as the core of my worldview and philosophy that free will and free choice is at the core of everything – and that I am responsible for all of my actions – and that I always have a choice – nothing excuses me from responsiblity, not even “a man with a gun pointed at me”.

But more on that some other day – my main interest today is on the this whole idea of “avoid eye contact.”

My experience in life has been that when you make eye contact with a stranger on the street it will more likely diffuse a situtation than start one. That is, by looking someone in the eye you show them respect and connect with them as a human being. The situation being further impacted by your other gestures, bearing, and reactions. Generally I look at someone (especially someone approaching me) in the eye, and then both smile or nod and tip my head in greeting – usually followed with moving to the appropriate side (this is assuming that we might otherwise have been on course to walk into each other).

All of my interactions may be helped by the fact that I am not a small man (5′ 11″, 220lbs) and I have lived in and walked in the city for quite a while.

But on the other hand, I have never once been mugged or assulted, and I have certainly walked late at night (and during the day) through parts of Chicago where that was and is a real possiblity.

Once this year I was yelled at and cursed at by a begger – but also, it was someone with whom I had avoided eye contact, someone I probably had clearly sent a message of “I’m ignoring you”.

Mostly, however, my interactions with people on the street result in smiles, friendly gestures, even surprised conversations with me – in at least one case specifically on the point that I had made eye contact, and that I had smiled. In that case, an older black man, he said that I was the first white person that week to do so – to aknowledge that he was a person and an individual – his comment was that I was the first white person who clearly did not think of him as a “black man” first.

I mention race here, because the show, in another move I did not approve of, showed the “muggers” as a gang of “tough” black men. And though they showed a victim of the “gang” as another black male, and though the footage was supposed to be “actual footage shot by the gang members themselves” – I thought as I viewed the show that the message being sent to the audiance was clear “be scared of a group of young black men walking down the street with you”.

Yes, they then had a middle aged black man as the “expert” offering advice (including the “don’t make eye contact it will only trigger primative rage” or some such – which perhaps the show’s producers thought would temper their message a bit. But for me the message seemed clear.

My experience, and I have quite a bit of it with bullies at least, is that it is the very denying that they are individuals (and also that you are one and someone like them) that allows for and causes the physical (and mental) torture to occur.

If, however, indivuality and individual connections are brought into the moment – the situation can diffuse (may still not, but it can). A smile, eye contact (but brief not confrontational), and perhaps even shared words and conversation can and do diffuse a situtation.

Personally were I confronted by a group of muggers – something that has never yet happened to me – I would talk to them but not by looking away and downward and submitting but rather by looking up to and at them. I would also try to connect with them in some way, to show them that I was an indivudual, and to aknowledge that they too were as well – something that we held in common – the weather, a local sports team, the neighborhood, perhaps something from what they are wearing or carrying – or a common local establishment.

Do not get me wrong, some people (of all races) are evil and dangerous – and bad things can and do happen all the time. But, and this is probably controversial, I firmly believe that you generally get what you expect – so, if you walk through the city expecting to be in danger, it gets sensed and you are in fact in danger. If, however, you walk through the city expecting not to be in danger, and expecting that the people around you will be friendly and welcoming, that is generally the reaction you will get.

My friend Andrius tells a story of living on the south side of Chicago (he is white, the area he was staying at, my friend David’s house is very poor and mostly black). He was confronted one day by a group of his neighbors – who proceeded to tell him “we’re looking out for you” – i.e. not in a “we’re going to mug you, shoot you, take your money” but in a “hey, we’ve noticed you’re around here…

Andrius is a very engaging sort – holds longer conversations with more people than even I – but I think his interaction is not some rare isolated example, but rather what happens when, like him, you have an attitude that people are basically good and honest.

There is mugh more, but this is overly long – more later this week.

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