Get Caught Staring — The Beating Heart of Being Approachable

The unsung importance of read receipts in stranger-stranger preludes to conversation.

This is the fifth entry in the series about how to be approachable.

The first rule of writing, I was taught at school, is to efface your subjective reactions. I break this today in reporting that I was taken aback by how much my experience of public life around strangers was influenced by what I’ll call “getting caught staring”. Perhaps nothing else in this series elevated the amount of extraversion directed towards me as this did.

But I’m jumping ahead of myself, so let me go back a bit. I began researching this piece by paying attention to how, whenever you enter a space, a flurry of tiny interactions occur between you and the incumbent inhabitants: Short looks in your direction. Polite smiles. Tiny, accommodating rearrangements of items strewn across a table or an adjacent chair.

The timeframe for these interactions is fleeting, the whole show lasting but a second. These exchanges barely register at a conscious level, yet they are imbued with a gravity, in that there is no off-button: No matter what — even if you decide not to play this game at all — your handling of these moments still leaves a lasting impression.

I. Six preliminary anecdotes

An analysis follows, but the abstraction would be worthless without some concrete characters in mind.

Abigail

During a conversation with her husband, a kind-looking, middle-aged lady intermittently broke his eye contact to briefly absorb her social surroundings, looking at the other attendees of this small philosophy discussion group.

(The discussion group was a good one, despite the moderator, a retired pastor, giving non-committal answers to my request to discuss “What Comes After the After-Life?”)

The human eye, similar to the T-Rex eye (citation: Jurassic Park, 1994), is adept at picking up movement. So when Abigail angled her head along the table, she reeled in a flood of other people’s attentions. In one such instance, my gaze crossed hers and she shot me a brief smile, a non-verbal green light signaling she was friendly, open, and happy to connect.

It felt riskfree to introduce myself to Abigail. She was the blue-chip stock of this social environ: I would have put my grandma’s retirement fund in her if I could. All this, because without even the slightest interruption to the conversation in which she was already engaged, she projected an inviting warmth to other attendees.

Isabella

Dressed to the nines and perched by the entrance to the coworking space, it was impossible not to be aware of Isabella.

Hide and seek clearly was not Isabella’s forte.

As aware as I was of her presence, Isabella seemed almost comically unaware of mine. Whenever I walked past her, she didn’t register my movements in any way. Forget about smiling, nodding, or even making a split-second of eye contact – Isabella kept her head down and her eyes glued to her work, ignoring me with unwavering firmness. This wasn’t just with me — in all my time at the space, I never witnessed her speaking to another soul.

Even though Isabella wasn’t wearing the modern-day “leave-me-alone” get-up of AirPods and Ray-Bans, she still managed to resemble a human do-not-disturb sign. Now don’t get me wrong — there’s honor in being absolutely absorbed in your work and wishing to be left alone; I own earplugs for exactly this purpose of locking myself in the zone.

But the sustained nature of Isabella’s isolation opened up the question whether this truly was her goal. The picture grew more confusing when I noticed that Isabella also attended after-hours social events thrown by the space, yet remained similarly distant even in these explicitly pro-social settings, sitting by herself in a faraway corner that might as well have been Siberia, her eyes pinned to her phone, gripping it like a lifebuoy. If she had wished to be left alone, as her body language during work hours had strongly suggested, then why attend optional after-hours events?

Brad

The first time I ever saw Brad was when we were moving towards one another in a corridor. As we passed, he smiled, slowly, and asked “how’s it going?”, despite not knowing me. Because I’ve lived in Northern Europe for years, I’ve become unaccustomed to chirpiness in public settings, and it was only after rubbing my eyes that I realized Brad was not an unfamiliar model of talking elevator but rather something even more bizarre: A Minnesotan.

Typical Minnesotan – note the friendly temperament

Our exchange, noncommittal and ritualistic as it may have been, made me feel acknowledged, and therefore comfortable sharing the space with Brad. Over the ensuing days, we shared escalating courtesies, tiny things like holding the door open when the other was nursing a hot coffee.

About two weeks later, I treated his phatic “how’s it going” as an actual question, one meant to be answered, and our first conversation ensued, where we bonded over mixed metaphors. As so often happens between strangers who see each other again and again, the mounting weight of pleasantries eventually became the straw that broke the icy camel’s back.

Omer

There are twelve apartments in my building, with perhaps thirty inhabitants between them. For the first six months after moving in, I greeted the retired Turkish construction worker on the ground floor with a “hello” every time we bumped into each other in the courtyard, but he never responded, staring through me, like a computer nerd through an easily circumvented paywall.

I have no qualms admitting that I wasn’t the first choice for the basketball team. But my height, wanting though it may be, presents little difficulty to the unassisted eye. So that hypothesis for him ignoring me can be ruled out.

Silliness aside, I found Omer’s behavior unsettling, suspecting perhaps some socioeconomic or racial tensions, as I gathered were common between old and new tenants in my rent-controlled and rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Faced with sustained blanking, I eventually ceased civilities, causing my relationship with Omer to slip forever into mutual invisibility.

Pavel

I was taking a break in the coworking space kitchen and telling anyone who’d listen about how I like trolling the relationships subreddit with fake, outrage-provoking problems, such as whether it’s justified, as a man, to feel unloved by your girlfriend if she eats 50% of shared dishes at restaurants, instead of say 42%, like “most of my friends’ girlfriends”, who forgo food out of a “self-sacrificing understanding of the greater caloric needs of their bulkier male partners”.

As I sprouted this nonsense, into the kitchen walked Pavel, a man so large that if he went bouldering, you’d attempt to scale him.

To-scale image of Pavel

Even though Pavel wasn’t party to our conversation, he tuned into the conversation while he brewed himself coffee, reacting with amused smiles. I noticed this, felt flattered in having a fan, and began treating him as if he were in my direct audience, looking over to address him every now and again. Once he’d finished preparing his drink, he smiled over at us and left without having had any direct exchanges. But I already felt a rapport with him, and I looked forward to meeting him for realz one day.

Fang

At an unabashed “meet new fwends” event, about 30 people — mostly tourists and exchange students — had communed in a beer garden. They were seated along a long table.

James, handsome, was the last to arrive. The only remaining seat for him was next to me, on the far end of the table. This spot was reachable only by walking past the other attendees, as if along a catwalk. As James moved, the others gave him standard but unremarkable receptions – raisings of the eyebrows, nods, and the like. But one Chinese woman waved vigorously to him, smiling widely and giggling, despite never having met James before. If readers can forgive me for going out on a limb here, it is my professional opinion that this woman may, just may, have had a crush.

James noticed Fang on his way to the seat beside me then talked to me for a bit, where I told him about my dream of one day opening up a chain of inconvenience stores where the automatic doors close on customers when they’re only halfway through (see video). Half an hour of edifying chat later, a seat near Fang becomes available and James relocates, with an urgency that I assure readers was attractive rather than repulsive in nature.

Within a minute of talking to James, Fang snatches his phone and punches in her digits, not even asking him for permission. Meanwhile her friends openly joked to James about how much Fang had the hots for him.

Even though Fang probably wasn’t the most attractive lady at the table, through her non-verbal acts, which from my vantage point were about as subtle as an air-raid, she provoked her crush into approaching. Yet when I asked James later about what prompted him to walk over, he said Fang “seemed friendly” but he was taken by surprise when he learned she was attracted to him. This big discrepancy between “message sent” and “message received” demonstrated a truth about non-verbal communications: Shouts become diminished to whispers and whispers to mere background noise. That is, non-verbal communication, for it to succeed, needs the volume turned way up.

II The analysis — polite inattention

Pre-eminent sociologist Erving Goffman, writing about people’s behavior in public, talks about civil inattention, whereby “one gives to another enough visual notice to demonstrate that one appreciates that the other is present (and that one admits openly to having seen him), while at the next moment withdrawing one’s attention from him so as to express that he does not constitute a target of special curiosity or design.” Notice that this definition consists of two actions — the giving of initial attention and its subsequent retraction, a two-stroke motion in the engine of harmonious public coexistence.

In two of the anecdotes above (dressed-up Isabella and the unneighborly neighbor Omer), the first prong of civil inattention — acknowledging the other person is present — was missing: Isabella never looked up from her MacBook when I passed her by and Omer never returned my greetings in the apartment courtyard. Around both of them, I felt slighted, as if a clump of clay or the contents of a dog’s bladder held greater fascination.

By contrast, the others (Abigail, Brad, Pavel, Fang) not only acknowledged the presence of the people around them, but, to varying degrees, went above and beyond by sending overtures of friendliness and warmth. If there was a button that said “super like” they’d have worn it down to a nub.

And by all accounts, their signals were effective at reshaping the extraversion contours of the surroundings and triggering spontaneous interactions. What’s more, this all occurred without these affable actors making the first move — well, more accurately, without making the first verbal move.

(A failure to carry out the second arm of civil inattention — the subsequent retraction of attention, e.g. sustained staring, more often than not comes across as imposing, threatening, or subjects of popular Radiohead songs. This, however, lies beyond the scope of today’s discussion.)

Out of all the people portrayed above, fashionista Isabella puzzled me the most. Why attend the after-hours events only to play with her phone?

The next office day after one such after-hours event, I “happened” to be working from a table opposite Isabella’s and could see, through my sunglasses, how she reacted to people entering the space. What I noticed was that although Isabella never visibly turned her head in any way towards passersby, she glanced briefly at them from the corner of her eyes, darting back to neutral gaze so rapidly that anyone ambling by would be hard-pressed to notice they were noticed. Isabella, it would seem, was both a master — and, as I’ll soon explain – a slave to never getting caught staring.

And I identified with this.

III Polite or too polite? On never sneaking a peek

In Erving Goffman’s two-pronged schema of polite inattention, I consider myself similar to Isabella in direction but not degree in. Partially this is because I don’t wish to impose my presence on other people or intrude upon their sense of privacy when in public. But mostly, it’s because showing interest, be that platonic or romantic, makes me feel vulnerable, a bit like I’m exposing my soft underbelly.

Unlike Isabella, I do usually look at people entering a space in an obviously noticeable manner. But I keep my glances vanishingly brief, immediately averting any returned gaze like a Matrix character does bullets, all while maintaining a stony lack of expression.

That said, if I find someone really attractive, I actively avoid crossing eyes while channeling my energy into stopping myself from hiding behind the nearest bush. So maybe my elderly neighbor Omer only seemed distant because he had a man-crush on me?

Compared to the approachable-seeming people in the anecdotes above (Abigail, Brad, Pavel, Fang), maybe my version of polite inattention wasn’t all that polite. I don’t think it was tantamount to a sandwich board that read “LOOKING AT YOU IS LIKE HAVING A ROOT CANAL”, but it might have been along that direction, especially if Brad & Co. set the social norms, norms which consist of sending unambiguously warm envoys, like smiles, nods, and waves, along with steady, sustained eye-contact.

And herein lay a contradiction: I would have felt exposed and desperate sending those same signals, yet I relished their receipt, viewing the senders as confident, friendly, not desperate in the least.

While I was wrestling with this incongruence, a study came to my attention. In 2015 Patterson and Tubbs (who — I couldn’t help Googling — is actually rake thin) asked confederates, who were described in the study as being of “average attractiveness” (a detail I’m sure they relished), to interact with strangers. The confederates were sent out to stand on university sidewalks and either:

  1. Looked straight ahead (control)
  2. Conspicuously turn their head towards and glanced at a passerby for 1 second
  3. As in b. above, but with a smile added to the mix

Compared to the control of “looking straight ahead” which got a 47% glance-back rate (GBR), conspicuously glancing got a 55% GBR, and the full monty – glancing and smiling – got a 70% rate, 1.49x the control.

This effect was even more pronounced with opposite-sex confederates, arguably because of the effect documented in the meme below:

What’s more, 40% of the pedestrians who glanced back also smiled if the confederate was smiling. Compared to a mere 6% smiling back if the confederate wasn’t smiling. A similar uplift was found for other positive reactions such as nods, or greetings. So, the simple act of smiling at a stranger already looking at you increases the probability that they’ll smile back sixfold. That result is tantalizing — what a difference to one’s social reality that would make.

Another study is of interest. It shows how the addition of a word of a greeting — “hi” in this case — precipitously increases the probability of a greeting being returned. Or in English, if you say “hello” people, tend to say it back. Obvious, yes, but a useful reminder in those moments where we expect magic in our social lives.


Just pay attention to the control case here. The mobile device arm is irrelevant for current purposes.

And so, between my own observations and the studies, I came to the personal epiphany that I might be an Isabella. I might be giving people less attention that I ought, at least given the goal of serendipitous encounters. I might have gotten the calibration wrong along the attention/ignore axis.

What if you don't even say "hey"?

IV The longest two seconds of everyday life

Following this change of viewpoint, I experimented with granting more overt attention to strangers. Mostly this consisted of allowing myself to get caught staring as well as radiating warmer non-verbal tidings.

I felt some resistance towards this. As the studies indicated, smiling was the gold standard among these friendly overtures, but I felt some hesitation towards shooting smiles at those sharing my space, mostly because I was unsure what sort of grin was expected and was worried that I’d regress to a look that has been described as the “Jim Carrey scary”.

But based on what I had observed with The Approachables above, a genuine crow’s feet, walking-on-sunshine smile was neither necessary nor the norm. A fake one would suffice, some workaday expression that was less a public overspilling of happiness and more a signifier of willingness to affiliate or appease.

So, against my natural tendencies, I gave this all a whirl, only to be pleasantly surprised. I often found that the warmth I transmitted would not only be reciprocated but also raised: In exchange for an open, slightly held glance at three women ordering food in a Chinese restaurant, I got a big smile. When I smiled at a programmer taking the seat opposite me at a coworking space, he sent me a verbalized greeting of “hi” back for my trouble. At these excellent rates of exchange, what would I get in return for a verbal greeting I initiated? (Fingers crossed for a book deal.)

The most striking interaction during this phase happened while working out in a gym in India, the gym’s cramped size in no way offset by a mammoth speaker playing Gasolina and all the other reggaeton hits I never liked.

A Dutch pensioner in her late 60s, with hair dyed candy red, was hovering near a machine where I was sprawled, gasping between my (obviously heroic) sets.

Because the room was so packed, I couldn’t tell whether the pensioner incidentally happened to be standing near me or whether she wanted access to the machine I was occupying. Instead of asking if I was in her way – which would have been the all-American, guns-blazing extravert way of doing things – I conspicuously turned in her direction and just looked at her. Not accustomed to sustaining a friendly stare (my Northern European expertise tending towards the cold variant), I felt time standing painfully still. But I held my ground, prolonging eye contact for another second and even cranked out a polite little smile, one reluctant little tooth at a time.

My smile was met with the pensioner’s. And sure enough, about ten seconds later, she asked to interweave sets, which we did while making small talk.

I know this might seem so unimportant, but I delighted in the build-up to this interaction. There was an unrushed smoothness to it, a flow that felt both ancient and natural when compared to the jerky sense of interruption that so often accompanies a sudden verbal comment delivered without the slightest non-verbal warm-up:

Me: “HEY LADY!!! D’ya need dat machine?”

Her: *Startled. Looks around her to find where the voice is emanating from.* “What, sorry. Couldn’t hear you. Bad ear.”

Me: “HEY LADY!!! DOOO YAAAAA NEED DAAAAT MACHINE?”

Besides, had I not acknowledged the pensioner’s presence, I doubt she would have felt comfortable interrupting some sweaty stranger who smelled suspiciously of sock. Through the tiny act of looking over and smiling, I felt like I had become a better inhabitant of the shared space, a more domesticated social animal, a person forever more prone to the spontaneous friendliness of others.

Getting caught staring was a keeper.

Continue reading the sixth and final entry in this series on how to be approachable where we look at performative standing around.