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Blog Archive > 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.
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
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
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
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
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!
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?
I'm from Wales and took ages adjusting when I moved 100 miles East about 20
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
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
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...