“You here for the workshop?” asks a woman in a purple button-down shirt. I nod. She lets me through the doors of a co-working space in downtown San Francisco, and I walk upstairs to a room full of silent strangers.
“Alright people,” says Eric Waisman, the founder of a company called Jaunty—an “education dojo for human relations” that organizes workshops on social intelligence.
He speaks with the confidence of a magician who’s about to unveil an unbelievable trick. “For the next five minutes, you’re going to stare into the eyes of the person next to you.” Nervous laughter ripples across the room. “Oh,” he adds, “and no talking.”
Then, he rings a tiny gong and starts his clock.
I turn to my right and lock eyes with a thin woman who looks about 20. Her curly hair is shaped into a fluffy faux-hawk, and a few lonely strands are died pink. The rest of the room seems to fade from view as we stare into each other’s pupils. Her face is an earthquake—lips trembling, eyes shifting back and forth, eyebrows subtly bouncing up and down. Her left eye gets a little damp, and I’m almost certain that a tear will escape within the next five minutes. I want so badly to look away and save her from my gaze.
“Now flash some aggression with your eyes,” Waisman says, briefly intruding on the world that this stranger and I have created between our souls. I can’t bring myself to do it; she doesn’t seem to have an aggressive bone in her body. Earlier tonight, she mentioned to me that this was one of the first meetups she’s attended. She is trying hard to make friends and leave her anxiety behind. I don’t want to be the one to stunt her social growth. And so, my eyes remain warm and friendly despite Waisman’s call for aggression.
Silence is awkward. Sustained eye contact is awkward. Together, they create a crater of awkwardness that the two of us fill with our nervous smiles. We battle the tension together. Awkwardness isn’t just in the mind. It manifests itself physically—in the flushing of my cheeks, the pounding of my heart, the turning of my stomach. I can feel it coursing through my body. And no amount of rationality will straighten my anxious smile.
“Try to project a sense of gratitude,“ comes Eric’s voice once again. This time, the instruction gives me a sense of relief. I try my best to make her feel at ease. My smile slowly relaxes into a grin. This is a mental trust fall, and I must cushion her landing with a compassionate gaze. I’m thinking, It’s ok. Don’t be nervous. I try to tell her this with my eyes, and I wonder if she understands. Her lips keep on trembling.
I’m not sure which one of her eyes to focus my attention on. I realize I’ve never had to think about this before. Where do I normally look? In the heat of the moment, I can’t remember. I wonder if she can tell which eye I’m looking at? After shifting back and forth a few times, I settle on her right eye for no particular reason.
After what seems like 15 minutes, we both start to relax a bit. The nervous laughs come in bouts of decreasing intensity. I stare at my reflection in the black of her right pupil. I can see my own eyes in hers.
I’m reminded of the lazy eye I had as a kid and the correctional eye patch I wore for two months in the second grade. For hours, I’d scream and cry and beg my mom to remove the oval-shaped band-aid from my face. In a failed attempt at making me feel better, the doctor always called it a “wandering” eye instead of a “lazy” one. Is my lazy eye returning for a comeback tour? I think to myself. I’m suddenly convinced that she knows about the eye problems I had as a kid.
“I want you to take half a step forward,” Eric says. We laugh as we creep forward. I’m now close enough to feel her skittish breath on my nose.
What is this person’s story? Why is she here? What does she think of me? In this moment, I remember my favorite word, sonder:
n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries, and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you…
She is a vivid and complex human being, but she is also a blank canvas. For these five minutes, she can be anyone that I want her to be. Maybe she’s a rockstar on hiatus taking a break from the road. Or maybe she’s just a student like me.
When I’m walking down the street and make eye contact with a fellow pedestrian, I often wonder about who they are. After we pass by each other, the curiosity fades away along with my memory of their face. But when I stare into this stranger’s, unanswered questions about her life and story linger unavoidably. Sustained and silent eye contact with a stranger sparks in me a “sonder” that becomes almost too intense to bear.
The day after the workshop, I managed to find the email address of Mads—my stranger—online. What was it like, I asked her, on the other side of this staring contest?
“For me, the eye contact was fairly difficult,” she said … “I could feel tension all over my body and, as you know, I had a difficult time trying to stop smiling. In my head I kept telling myself to stop, but I don’t think it worked as well as I hoped it would. I think that the smiling was something my brain was telling me to do to ease the discomfort I felt … As a woman, I have been taught not to make intense eye contact with strangers. It could get me into trouble, especially if I was somewhere in public.”
What is it about sustained eye contact that feels so unsettling? Why can the eyes of another human make us feel so uniquely rattled?
Our eyes are a bridge between our minds and the outside world. They are a portal to the mind. What’s uncomfortable about staring at a stranger’s is that we don’t know anything about the mind we’re supposedly looking at. To make sustained eye contact with a stranger in silence is to ignore a universe of meaning. It’s like looking at a movie cover for two hours instead of watching the DVD that’s inside.
When Eric rings his gong to mark the end of the five minutes, our eyes unlock. I quickly look to the left and take a deep breath. Mads and I laugh together and exchange a few words about how strange and short and long those minutes were. The eye contact required for conversation now feels nearly effortless. I may never know who exactly she is or what she’s about, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Her eyes and my “I” were intertwined, if only for a few moments.