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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 22-Mar-06

 


Wednesday 22-Mar-06

Averting gaze on the train

I regularly travel on trains, both overground and underground, and find it very interesting how carefully everybody looks at nobody. Worse still, at rush hour you can be pressed up against other people, well within their personal space and even touching their private areas.

Gaze is a fundamental unit of human communication. When you look at another person and they look back at you, then a connection is made and silent messages fly back and forth. If you are within their personal space, then eye contact is even more significant. Close up, this can be very threatening. Even if you are at opposite ends of the carriage, the fact that you are both trapped in the same space with no way out also leads to subconscious consideration that if the other person becomes aggressive as a result of your gaze, you have no escape.

In early development (and importantly for psychoanalysis), one of the first things that an infant distinguishes is the gaze of its mother. The future psychological health of the person may depend very much on whether this is loving or not, and the predictability of the gaze. From then on, the gaze of another can be either wonderful or terrifying.

Wise train operators know that people want some excuse not to look at others and so provide 'interesting' things to read. In a crowded commuter train adverts get amazingly well read, as do the newspapers sold on the platform. I hope that the operators and publishers know this and charge their advertisers accordingly.

To gaze anything more than a fleeting moment is to signal desire or aggression. We thus follow social rules to avoid threatening others. I have tried some perhaps wicked experiments of smiling at others, but they just look alarmed and turn away. The best I have found is to exchange pleasantries, but mostly I join in and pretend I am completely alone.


Your comments


I live in a small town in Maine, pop. 7,000. In a small town, people look at you. REALLY look at you. Who are you, how do I know you, where do I know you from?

It's the norm to look at each other.

When I went to live in San Francisco, I felt depressed for a while. Until I figured out that I was looking at people and they weren't looking back. I was invisible and didn't matter.

After living there for some time, I realized that when people did look at you it was a cause for alarm - and if they spoke it was worse - in the case of men checking out my body or saying suggestive things - it signaled danger, or an unpleasantness such as a request from street people for money, or folks handing out tracts.

I understood finally that it was really being respectful to not speak or look directly at people.

I'm home for years now, and I can't go anywhere in my town without people speaking to me. A quick trip to the post office can turn into an hour conversation. The common apology is "Sorry I'm late, I ran into Jim at the post office", the common response is, "It's okay, what's Jim up to these days." And then you're late for the next thing!

People know way too much about you, some of which isn't true. I found out recently that someone thought I had been divorced for years - we traced that rumour back 7 years to a conversation we'd had in the grocery store and straightened it out!

For the most part, the conversation consists of good gossip, "Kerry's off to college", or "Mary is getting married again" or sad news "Jake is off to Iraq" or "Sue's mother died".

Unless someone is ticked off about something, and then they vent. And look out, because those can turn into 3 or 4 way conversations until it's your turn at the counter!

People let you know what's wrong with you, "You look tired" or take inventory "Is that a new car", or let you know where you've been lately - "Saw you going into Rite-Aid".

My friend called me on her cell phone yesterday as she drove by my house and said, "You're wearing yellow, I saw you in the window."

Plusses to the city way and the country way. But I bet you get through your errands a lot quicker than I do!

-- Jeanne
 

Dave replies:

I understand your experience, Jeanne. I'm originally from Wales and moved 100 miles East to work in London. It was like moving to another planet! The Welsh culture is direct and wry. The Southern English culture is very restrained and a lot doesn't get said. I took ages to figure out how to get on with people.


Dave, I would appreciate any tips you have on getting on with the southern english. I still have not learnt. I am from the friendly north of england where people speak to easch other as a matter of course. I find I get criticised for being confrontational and or being aggressive, whereas back home I would just be taken as being straight talking or candid. Any pointers?

-- John

Dave replies:

Hi John

I'm from Wales and took ages adjusting when I moved 100 miles East about 20 years ago.

First rule is not to say what you think. Awful isn't it.

Second rule is always be polite unless you know the people very well and the polite curtain has been carefully lowered.

Generally use language that permits the other person to get out of a corner. Thus for example you may say 'Have you thought about...' rather than 'You should...'.

You can of course talk about others when they are not there. The best assassination is not to call them a f***ing idiot but to damn them with faint praise ('He's not very helpful, is he?').

Asking others their opinion always goes down well, don't you think?

Class differences are sharper here. Lower classes swear and are aggressive. Upper classes are arrogantly assumptive. Middle classes are terminally polite.

A good tutor is the television. Many programmes are Southern.

And practice, practice, practice!


Ah, the repressed southerners...... Includes me, sadly. Online I'm open, chatty - and can be face-to-face but generally only if someone else speaks first....

As for blunt/direct/friendly northern men... Well, I'm off to get some advice from a northerner who, on first meeting, struck me in this way: "Oh dear, he's a bit [southern irony for 'very'] blunt! Not sure if I'll be happy with him joining our weekly group!" Essentially, I didn't like him. But being from the terminally polite middle class (fair comment!) I kept quiet, got to know him - and now trust him to an extent that I wouldn't trust many other people.

Northern women? Oh dear oh dear. Friendly, chatty, open - I thought she was being flirtatious. Lovely person. Talk about misreading signals...

-- Laury



 


 

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