When I was assigned an ethnographic essay as my first anthropology assignment, I was undoubtedly confused as to what topic I should write on. Feeling slightly defeated, I stumbled into the tram to go home. I stood in front of a girl facing her as there was barely any space to do otherwise. All was well until I looked up from my mobile and accidentally made eye contact with her. I was tired so I didn’t even realize that I was staring at her until she began to look uncomfortable. It got very awkward. A claustrophobic sensation and a feeling of ‘forced intimacy’ kicked in and I could feel the blood rush to my face. Even though we broke eye contact, that feeling stayed.
Then it came to me, it is an untold social rule that you must not make eye contact with a stranger for prolonged amounts of time or you are considered to be rude. As simple as it sounds, observing this opened a can of worms. Intimacy between human beings begins when a mother holds her newborn baby (in fact, skin-on-skin contact is advised to strengthen the bond), and from then onwards, the people with whom we find physical contact comfortable are those we share an emotional connection with, namely kith and kin.
Now that it is clear that physical closeness is associated with intimacy, I feel that what really pushes the intimate feeling is eye contact. I connect this, yet again, to our experiences as children. Children stare unabashedly, spending a lot of their time looking at faces and learning how to speak and express emotions. The eyes, being the physical part of the body that we can’t fully control, are thereby a powerful source of social and emotional information. It is also proven by the fact that people with higher levels of neuroticism feel more compelled to break eye contact quicker as they feel like they need more control over it. The eyes are indeed a window to the soul, and the pupils are a literal window to the eye. Hence, eye contact is associated with strong communication, memory for faces, and social connection. It is due to this, that I believe we find eye contact intimate, and even confrontational, with strangers.
An interesting aspect of this is who each individual finds more comfortable having eye contact with. As I have observed, there is a sense of classism and a sense of community simultaneously in public transport. While I was frantically looking elsewhere, hoping to break the tension, I made eye contact with yet another girl, but it didn’t feel as awkward. She seemed to be holding the same equipment as me and we just smiled at each other acknowledging our similarity. It is the same case when it comes to races for some people, the reason being that the color of their skin can be a symbol of a similar upbringing or maybe livelihood. It is a sense of community, not racism, created due to similar struggles and ethics. However, the opposite can be true. I feel when we see people who we immediately ‘judge’ as someone we are incompatible with, we ‘overcompensate’. We avert our eyes trying not to stare as it can be seen as judgmental, whatever our true feelings might be. How the rich try not to look at the poor is a case of ‘polite classism’ and the same can be applied to races, gender, appearance, and many other traits that make us diverse.
When the tram got less crowded at later times and I was able to observe more, I drew another curious conclusion. Most people had their heads bent down looking at their phones. All except a select few. Some were looking out of the window, while others, mostly senior citizens, were watching the people in the tram. Personally, I think is an interesting habit of the elderly because they grew up without cell phones to keep them busy and they had to interact with people more as the digital world wasn’t as fully developed. An obvious phenomenon is the adoring looks sent the way of kids that reveal the ‘grandparental’ status. There has been a significant amount of progress when it comes to acceptance in the past decade, so some of their gazes may be tinted with darker emotions as they stare at things that used to be ‘frowned upon’ in their time. But for me, a more interesting approach, though it could be a shot in the dark, is that they are reflecting on past times. As they grow older, their past feels closer as their futures become shorter. Each individual might remind them of a phase or a moment in their lives. So, the reason they don’t look away when we look back could either be a simple case of being lost in thought or an inward sigh lamenting what things have come to in these modern times.
As I got off the tram and into the station, I noticed something that is not prevalent where I grew up. The escalator is divided into two sections, one side for standing and the other for walking. Upon research 2, I have discovered that this is a very inefficient way to use escalators because more people tend to stand than walk, as it is safer. This causes more weight to fall onto one side of the escalator making it break more often. Despite many efforts in some cities around the world to change this, people still continue to move at whatever stride they want. Through this, I came to realize that humans need control over the pace they live their lives, and the escalator seems to be one of the few ways they can implement that control. It is a case where tradition prevails over logic. A kind of hierarchy forms through this and the other general ‘paths’ we give people in a rush.
Overall, I think that the crowds bustling in the stations and various modes of public transport reflect many characteristics of the human mind and the web of society that we create. Many of our current habits stem from traditions in olden times that we are unaware of. It makes me wonder whether some of our current ways of thinking will turn into ‘tics’ for the later generations!
- Cheddar (2019). The Unseen Inefficiency of Escalator Etiquette - Cheddar Explains. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbsoO2c7gCM [Accessed 27 Mar. 2019].
- Ro, C. (2017). Here’s Why Eye Contact Is So Awkward for Some People. [online] New York. Available at: https://www.thecut.com/article/heres-why-eye-contact-is-so-awkward-for-some-people.html [Accessed 24 Mar. 2019].