Whenever I’d beat my friends at the Tourist Game that we played on the Rue de la République, it had only been because I knew the Regulars of Kathy’s Deli in Shippensburg. Having worked there for four years, I had the advantage of knowing the face of a Regular, and because of this, I could spot any tourist within a French crowd before my friends did by the way they held open their eyes—shameless, like French windows without shutters, trying to drink in the sight of the pastry shops and the roasting chestnuts on the square. Trying to notice people’s lack of familiarity with their surroundings—so that I could help them order a sandwich, taste the pasta salad, make life easier—had once been my job.
And so every afternoon, my American friends and I sat at the café on the Place de l’Horloge and watched the tourists, guessing the nationalities of the people who passed our table. Tourists from the United States were the large, fleshy ones with white Nikes, crashing their laughter against the city walls. Italians were always draped with neon-colored scarves, wearing their dark hair in a shaggy cut as they merged for photos by the Palais des Papes. The Germans and Swiss always made me think of Rubbermaid containers, their bodies sturdy beneath plastic windbreakers and deep blue backpacks. But then, there were the French—thin whips of people clothed in black who sliced through the crowds on the gusts of Avignon wind. The French were always careful to freeze away their gazes from public intimacy, knowing that they already belonged to their country like a Regular belonged to my deli counter. Whenever I played the Tourist Game, I remembered the Regulars of Kathy’s and distinguished the tourists by the curiosity of their eyes, for only a tourist would let their eyes give away the fact that they were not at home.
— “Making Change,” RiverCraft, Susquehanna University, 2005-06
I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in late August. It’s the largest city I’ve ever lived in with a population of over 300,000 within the city limits, at least according to the 2011 U.S. Census. (Harrisburg, where I moved from, has 50,000.) The University of Pittsburgh, where I am now a graduate student, has 24,000 students, which is three times more individuals than has my hometown. I grew up on a road that sliced between my family’s house and our farmland, but now, when I look out my bedroom window, I see a low city skyline. When walking down Forbes Avenue to go to class or get a coffee, I pass a seemingly endless stream of people that I may never see again while in Shippensburg, I used to be stopped on the street to be told: “You must be a Grove. I knew your grandfather.” Living in a world different than that in which you grew up often shifts your perception of the normal actions that you take for granted, such as the way that people show their awareness of those around them.
The first city I in which I lived was Avignon, France (population 90,000) in 2005, where I was a study abroad student through the Institute for American Universities. Before I left the United States, we students had given a glossy brochure explaining what differences to expect between French culture and ours, including eating habits, TV watching, and electricity usage, but none of this could prepare me, a small-town girl, for the simple difference of being in a larger place than the one I’d left. I was shocked, for example, with the different way that people appeared to see.
When I walked down the street in Avignon, I wanted to look around. Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder as a kid had trained me to key in my senses, to “be eyes” for those who were not there, and I wanted to drink in all the details on France so I could write them all into emails for my family. Look at these cobblestones! How old’s this church? How many flower shops am I passing? Is that really an H&M? The trees were different: scaly sycamore, scraggly olive shrubs. The sky was different, unclouded blue.
But when I turned my eyes to the people, I noticed an acute difference: nobody else was looking at all of this except for me. On my morning bus ride into the city, the punk rocker next to me stared out the window or looked at the floor. The elegantly-dressed businesswoman leafed through a copy of La Provence. All riders chimed a pleasant “bonjour” to the bus driver when getting on our bus and finding their seat, but then, I watched their gazes shutter back, fall inward. Observing this made me feel miserable. If I was to “become French,” in a sense, while I was there, how was I supposed to “see”? I had been told that white sneakers and low-cut spaghetti strap shirts could target me as a “tourist” — that dreaded word that equated to self-centered ignorance — but how was I to know that I could also express my foreignness by my eyes?
Eye contact in a variety of cultures means different things. In Shippensburg, eye contact means recognition and acknowledgement. In New York City, extended eye contact — a staring contest — on the subway is rude at best. Occasionally, eye contact can be a flirtatious invitation. And in Russia — as I recently learned when talking to a perfect stranger on a Megabus — eye contact on the subway is a power struggle. When on a Russian metro, you look other riders up and down and analyze them, discovering them, questioning them wordlessly, as shamelessly as did the tourists of Avignon.
What, then, is our relationship with seeing? It’s easy to acknowledge that sometimes our eyes don’t take in everything around us; all of us have been so deep in thought that one time or another, for example, that we don’t notice a friend who passes us on the sidewalk. Being so open to seeing all the details, as I try to do in moderation when I’m a tourist anywhere, is tiring. I never take more naps than I do when I’m in a new culture or a new place. A sign of cultural acceptance, or simply in feeling safe, is the fact that we have the luxury of stopping to see the details, or that these details cease to demand our attention because they have become normal.
But in terms of people, this phenomenon has a specific name. The avoidance of eye contact in certain cultures — whether Pittsburgh, New York City, and even France — is known as “civil inattention,” which is described by Wikipedia as “a process whereby strangers who are in close proximity demonstrate that they are aware of one another, without imposing on each other.” In The Art of Self-Invention (2007), author Joanne Finkelstein explains that civil inattention is “a sign of recognition that others have claims to a shared space or environment” and a signal of “boundar[ies] and self-enclosure.” This notion explains that the lack of eye contact is not the same as ignoring someone; it’s a gesture of being polite or self-preservation. In a 2011 article in the New York Times entitled “Look at Me, I’m Crying,” Melissa Febos echoed the same sentiments — that, in more populated areas, we have “train-faces,” or exterior faces that we sometimes don to preserve our interior sense of privacy. If eyes are the window to the soul, we sometimes avert our gaze not just because we don’t want to see someone else; we’d prefer that they don’t see us.
The rules are much more complicated, however, than choosing to see or not to see. In Harrisburg, there were still few enough people on the street that I could look at each of them individually and, with a brief glance, nod to acknowledge their presence. Sometimes we’d say hi. Sometimes we would not. In Pittsburgh, I have yet to make eye contact with strangers on the street or on the bus, although within structured contexts — asking for recommendations on teas at the Té Café on Murray Avenue, for example — people are deliciously willing to talk. When Lynn Palermo and I were hiking in northern France and were clearly not locals, we were carefully watched and spoken to with hesitant humor. Choosing to truly see with open eyes as well as an open heart perhaps is something that not only differs between areas of more or less population; it seems to depend on how accustomed an area is to strangers, and whether or not those strangers have hurt them in the past.
In the moment of looking at someone else, we unconsciously size them up — well-dressed or not, aged or not, capable of stealing our wallet or not — whether the judgements we make are fair. Walking amid strangers in public can be vulnerable business, and looking at those around us helps us find our relationship within the current social hierarchy. But it’s more than this. In walking on a street with those of a city or town that we share, we must acknowledge within our lack of seeing that we are not disconnected entirely — that we are still willing to reach out a hand to someone who trips on the sidewalk, to spare some change for the homeless, to point out directions to a father with an unfolded map and a furrowed brow. It’s maybe an act of self-preservation to do this selectively, but the day that our eyes see only inward is the day we miss the point of the community in which we live.