Londoners, mainly, it is said will not look you in the eye. Orin Hargraves in his book Culture Shock suggests that, ‘Because London compresses so many people into a small place, people who live there very often build a wall of sorts around themselves for protection’ which means people do not routinely make eye contact and greetings are not exchanged between people who don’t know each other’.
This idea that Londoners don’t make eye contact is interesting. There may be some truth in it, in that Londoners don’t commonly make friendly eye contact, which is a precursor to an airey conversation about the faults of the weather or the stresses of travellign on London transport. They don’t tend to do that, although some older people do, some old time East Enders, who seem to be hanging on to a bygone age when there was a common code for idle chit chat with people that you don’t know, but whom you want to maintain some kind of common bond with.
The thing about eye contact is that it is always saying I’m vulnerable, in that I want to be affected by you, I need to be affected by you and I’m prepared to be affected.
Eye contact is often made on the tube, albeit fleetingly, men and women are often eyeing each other up on the tube. This eye contact is if to say I have needs that are not being fulfilled, and I am looking for someone to fulfill them, and I am ready to give something in return.
Eye contact is often made between people who are stood on the platform and people who are sat on a train, which has just pulled off from the station. This is because there is an assumption that you will never see that person again, which means, essentially that you are not vulnerable, which is why people do it. Eye contact between men and women is frequent more common when the tube doors are shut, less dangerous, less consequences, the assumption is that you are never going to see them again, there are clear boundaries, a train going in the opposite direction, down a dark tunnel. A man, is walking along a platform chatting to a female friend, and for some reason feels happy, his spirits rise, he laughs, and out of the corner of his eye, he notes a woman, pretty with short hair, intelligent looking, smiling, looking somewhere in his vicinity. As the doors of the train close, he says to his friend look at that girl looking at me. His friend notices, nudges him and gives him a wink, which makes the girl on the train laugh, and with the train doors closed, she firmly fixes her gaze on to the eyes of the man, who knowing that the train is about to pull off, has his smiling eyes firmly fixed on hers, a deep warmth penetrating his body, as he realises he will never see her again.
People who make eye contact with each other on a train or the platform, or in life generally, are sending out a message that they need someone in their life, whether it be a friend or a lover. Londoners do not tend to do this, even when this is how they feel.
Some of course, who make this eye contact, may already have a lover, and they want another one. Wolves and sheep. One guy, a Nigerian dude, one day approached a girl, who he’d seen many times waiting on the platform, and who he’d shared a smile with, and told her that he just wanted to tell her that he thought she looked great. He took that same train many times more after that occasion, but never saw the girl again.
When you get on the tube packed full of people you notice that for every person asleep, head buried in a paper or reading the train adverts, there is someone who, just like you, is scanning everyone and anyone. Sometimes the motive is sexual, and from time to time you might find someone attractive enough, that when your eyes meet, you both might linger, and you both might feel this heat rise in your chest. If you make eye contact, lingering, you can go beetroot red, or keep cool, but one way or another, that space, that area around their eyes, has huge significance, it feels extraordinarily uncomfortable, and you avoid at all costs, and you feel a huge relief once they have gotten up and gone. In such moments their location in the tube becomes a sacred place, a place to which you become highly sensitized, and which you may or may not, decide to let your gaze softly focus on, once again. If the person is located some metres away from you, you can spend the rest of the journey affecting not to have ever noticed them in the first place. If they are sat opposite you on the tube, you will undoubtedly feel a degree of discomfort, as the fact that your eyes can no longer lazily sweep from right to left without jumping the bit in the middle, betrays what has just happened.
Sometimes on a tube you might feel furtive or voyeuristic. You will, if you are sat on a seat at the end of a row, one which has a fibre glass wall to lean on, use the reflection in the glass to peer into the features of some peculiar beauty you have noticed. The reflection in the glass often brings this person’s face closer to yours, so you feel as if somehow you are intimately related, and yet miles away, as if day dreaming. Every now and then, you may, if you are looking at someone well acquainted with the practice of glass panel ogling, find their reflection staring directly into your eyes, at which point, after recovering from your mild heart attack, you can pretend, as your eyes dart away, that none of this really happened, or if it did it happened in the parallel universe of reflections, thus invalidating it as a real life experience.
Sometimes the motives for people looking around are aggressive. The person you are staring at, is an alpha male dominator, usually pretty tall, who looks across the length of the carriage, staring into the eyes, coldly, of any other person, usually a male, who has drummed up the courage or stupidity to look him directly in the eyes. A usual trick to deploy in these situations is to stare the psychopath inbetween the eyes, this rather confuses them, they have the feeling that you are taking them on, and yet cannot feel completely angered by it, because you are not looking them directly in the eyes.