Even fleeting glances can make a difference. Many of us have had the experience of what the Germans call “wie Luft behandeln” (“to be looked at as though air”). The social norm of avoiding eye contact seems harmless, but it might not be. In an experiment conducted at a large Midwestern university, a college-age woman walked by people on campus and either made eye contact, smiled at them while making eye contact, or directed her gaze “beyond the ear of the passer-by,” deliberately avoiding eye contact. She was trailed by another researcher, who surveyed people in her wake. Those who were looked at as though they weren’t there reported feeling more disconnected from others.
Simply acknowledging strangers on the street may alleviate their existential angst; and being acknowledged by others might do the same for us.
It reminded me of a practice I started several years ago when I walked my dog. My neighborhood is populated with many retired Russian/Ukrainian ex-pats who came to LA in the 80s. I often seen couples, or groups of women taking a morning or evening stroll. I noticed that many appeared afraid of my dog. I started out by smiling at them when we passed each other on the sidewalk, and now I often say hello to them when I pass. Today, sometimes I see grandmothers pushing strollers or sitting and waiting for a ride, I will stop and say hello. Sometimes they say hello and pet Mr Dog. And I have even noticed a few now have little dogs of their own on the evening walk.
This makes me so happy.
When I go out and say hello to these constant neighborhood strangers, I always feel better. I might walk out the door feeling sad or frustrated - and this evaporates with these interactions. It's nice to see some science behind it.