Eye Contact in Harvard Square

Chicago is a magical city. It is the only large American city I know where people establish eye contact in the streets. People actually look at each other, not discreetly, not at a distance, not in a casual sort of way, but directly. The eyes meet, the energy is transferred, connection occurs. This eye contact generates a transaction: a smile, a grin, a blink or a friendly word.

Cambridge is a magical city. More neurons per square inch and more connectors between those neurons, more Internet connections than any other place in the globe make this a wonderful place to reinvent oneself. And despite all that connectivity and all those connectors, people do not connect. People avoid eye contact with strangers in Harvard Square, elsewhere in Harvard, in Cambridge and in surrounding areas.

In a class recently, we discussed what happens at Harvard when you encounter a professor in a public place, outside of class. Most of the time, there is no transaction; frequently, there is no eye contact. The eyes are our magical trust building tool, they are the windows to our soul. Eye contact leads to trustworthiness, to reciprocity, to a feeling of “I belong here.” I wonder about the effect that this avoidance to connect has on the construction of a community of trust; I wonder if the excellent work that takes place in some of the classes is rendered ineffective on occasions where this disconnect occurs.

Some may say “everyone is too busy for small talk, they’re into their own agenda, they don’t have time,” or, “what will they think if I start a conversation,” or, “connecting with a stranger is just not the way things are done around here, it is a Northeastern type of thing.” The barriers may be skills, paradigms or attitudes. It may be a simple cost-benefit calculation. Not doing it is easier than doing it.

The opportunity cost of this passive approach is enormous. Not connecting, not transferring energy, not exploring mutual interests with a stranger, and thus not allowing one the possibility of broadening his circle, of building community, renders one into an individual, a powerless individual, a disempowered individual.

Connection begins with an attitude. When one sees in people experiences, opportunities, beauty and life, one is open to meeting them, and often willing or eager to break the ice. When one sees threat in people, then all the circuits block. Along with the right attitude, comes some skill; communicating in a verbal and a non-verbal way our desire to connect is vital. The non-verbal cues that we give are responsible for opening the doors, and the eyes are the cavalry in that non-verbal battalion we run.

And connection is the first of several key steps towards construction of social capital. This valuable asset which each of us can build through his networks, makes one a happier and more competitive individual. The trust and reciprocity which are generated, and the exchanges of information, tips and ideas lead to stronger bonds, stronger communities and stronger individuals. The starting links in this chain are eye contact with a stranger, an ice breaker, a smile, a friendly tip.

Do you want synergies? Would you like to experience symbiosis? Would you enjoy generating serendipity? Try connecting today. Risk it. Look into the eyes of a stranger in the street. Smile. It will make them wonder.

Pedro Medina is a fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. He researches methodologies for building social capital.