Column: On Eye Contact

Paulina Czienskowski took part in an experiment: What happens when you choose to concentrate on having eye contact?

3.3 seconds, then it gets uncomfortable. A mere dart of the eyes, diving into those of someone unknown to us. Direct eye contact is just so intimate – it’s probably the most intimate action between two people that doesn’t involve touching.

That’s also because we think we can see into each other’s innermost selves that way, which sounds almost eerie. But it represents a precious moment. It can build a silent connection to a stranger, just without any obligation.

Yet most people on the street seldom allow such moments to occur. When was the last time you unselfconsciously looked at someone on public transport, even smiled, just because you felt like it? Many prefer to stay in their own worlds – untouchable, unimpressed, disinterested.

Maybe it’s out of fear or shyness, or maybe self-protection. Maybe even to differentiate one’s own being from that of another? By all means, anonymization in a crowd is understood – you have to filter things out to not be moving through the city in a state of constant overload.

 

But still, it’s a shame that interpersonal encounters seem to only exist in a structure – with the people you know. Spontaneity can sometimes be much richer, intellectually and emotionally inspiring.

So it’s hardly surprising that Eye Contact Experiment, a recent three-hour evening event in Alexanderplatz, drew a crowd of hundreds. The idea: Look into the eyes of a stranger for a full minute. Take a little time – the blink of an eye.

In the middle of the trash, the trams passing by, and the breakdancers, surrounded by lights and noise, people sat two-by-two on the ground, constantly changing their position to sit opposite the next stranger.

While staring ahead, you soon recognized that it’s not as simple as you’d believe. Sixty seconds is a long time! You blink. Your eyes jump back and forth from left to right, you straighten your clothes, knead your finders. You ask yourself: “Have we forgotten how to be open and bold with other people?”

It’s a surprising thought, because we’re always connected to everyone – if we want to be. Because we share our lives, also with those we don’t know. We show everyone who we apparently are, but just digitally. Social media makes us transparent.

At the end of the day, perhaps this surreal openness is the crux of the matter. You can hide your own insecurities from strangers behind a screen very well. It’s just among real people that you recognize how difficult it is to deal with real intensity.

That’s why the first moments of the experiment feel strange. Even when a look can’t be interpreted as an encroachment, many blush. But at some point calm sets in to your mind. You begin to trust, even when you don’t know each other. You lose yourself, almost meditatively, in that pair of eyes, occasionally there’s a grin, then seriousness returns, a thoughtfulness.

You believe you capture something of the true being of the people sitting in front of you. What are you thinking of at the time? Nothing. Thoughts become diffuse. Everything around you disappears except for the sea of people in which you’re sitting.

The fascinating thing is that you have the feeling of knowing someone before you’ve learned a single detail about their life, before you exchange a first word. That’s unusual – after all, we’re used to categorizing a person from the start based on defined facts.

It’s this intimacy that you’ve given to another person, even if for a short time, without demanding anything – completely uncalculated, unconditional attention for another. Solidarity. Maybe we should seize on this in our everyday lives. So here is an appeal: Make more eye contact.

Translation: Melissa Frost

Paulina Czienskowski is a Berlin-based freelance journalist. Born and raised in the city, she lived in the USA, a small town in Germany, and in Paris before returning to get to know her hometown from a new perspective. In her work, Paulina seeks to understand the unspoken – always recognizing the meaningful and the authentic amidst the stories and social constructions. She is a contributing writer to Die Zeit, Berliner Morgenpost, L’Officiel, as well as indie magazines like Sofa and Das Wetter.