Be a Good Neighbor, Make Eye Contact

by Shilpi Paul

Be a Good Neighbor, Make Eye Contact: Figure 1

In a recent piece from The Atlantic Cities, Tyler Falk investigated the idea that a gesture as effortless as eye contact can make neighbors feel less like strangers.

Besides some non-scientific data that the author notes on one his daily walks (not much eye contact in Capitol Hill, it seems), Falk cites a recently-published study out of Purdue University. In “To Be Looked at as Though Air: Civil Attention Matters,” psychology professor Eric D. Wesselmann attempted to determine if making or not making eye contact with a stranger has any affect on feelings of disconnection.

From the study:

“Because social connections are fundamental to survival, researchers argue that humans evolved systems to detect the slightest cues of inclusion or exclusion. For example, simple eye contact is sufficient to convey inclusion. In contrast, withholding eye contact can signal exclusion. Even though one person looks in the general direction of another, no eye contact is made, and the latter feels invisible.”

The researchers had a woman walk around a college campus and either look through someone without acknowledging them, make eye contact, or make eye contact and smile. Another researcher then asked the people how disconnected they felt from others (the woman and the researcher did not reveal their connection).

Be a Good Neighbor, Make Eye Contact: Figure 2
The results, courtesy of Atlantic Cities.

As to be expected, the people who received the smile felt the least disconnected, and those who were “looked through” felt the most disconnected. While we can’t quite extrapolate the findings to larger metropolitan areas — a college campus is a fairly safe community where people presumably feel some sort of connection towards each other already — it is notable that the recipients of the “air gaze” felt even more disconnected than the control group. Looking through someone is worse than doing nothing.

All over DC, new residents are moving next door to people who have been in the same home for decades. Neighborhoods can easily feel fragmented, and neighbors on either side of the new/old divide can feel invisible at times. As we noted in an article from late last year, in 2007, Harvard political scientist and “Bowling Alone“ author Robert Putnam published a widely publicized study that concluded that when neighborhood diversity increases, civic engagement goes down. After interviewing over 30,000 people, Putnam found that people vote and volunteer less, distrust their neighbors more, and give to charity less in mixed neighborhoods.

Maybe making eye contact with our neighbors is one small way in which we can get a little closer to being, as Mayor Gray wants, “One City.

What do you think? How much eye contact do you notice in your neighborhood?

See other articles related to: gentrification, eye contact, atlantic cities

This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/be_a_good_neighbor_by_making_eye_contact/5611


  1. xmal said at 4:05 am on Tuesday June 5, 2012:
    I make eye contact and ask how it's going when I can. As awkward as it can be to speak first, it's even worse when you look away and the other person then makes the effort.
  1. Dodie Butler said at 6:00 am on Tuesday June 5, 2012:
    Eye contact is everything! It is also the underlying cultural norm in any healthy community. Watch people on the street and you'll see that on the streets where eye contact is the norm and where you reciprocate, you'll always feel safer and more grounded. Eye contact, a nod or slight smile all confirm recognition of and respect for the person one is passing -- that is the minimum it takes. Also take a shot at chatting with people in line at the grocery store or gas station, the cashier or waiter/waitress, or someone on the subway or an elevator, and you'll quickly start feeling like you live in a much smaller town -- and a whole lot safer. Great article Shilpi -- I really appreciate your sharing this research.

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