My friend's rant about Vancouver women are actually based on at least a sliver of fact?
August 25, 2009 8:42 PM   Subscribe

Walking down an uncrowded/empty street, someone of the opposite sex walking towards you. 10+ paces away, they're usually, or may not (sunglasses, distance), be looking at you (sunglasses, distance), 10 paces away, they look away from your direction, between 1 and 2 paces away, they quickly look to see if you're looking at them...

... in safe neighbourhoods, I don't parse as a credible threat, and I may or may not actually have been looking at them outside of acknowledging that someone is walking down the street towards me (the quick look at 1 or 2 paces is what usually catches my attention).

No, I'm not staring at these people, sure, sometimes I see someone pretty and appreciate but will refrain from staring. I'm usually scanning if I'm somewhere unfamiliar/interesting or tunnel vision if I'm doing, say, a grocery run or going from the bus stop to the lab/home.

I have (my own) pessimistic assumptions, but my question is; do you (as in, the 'they' in the fpp) engage in this behaviour and I am very curious as to the motivation/intended end?

No, I don't by habit turn to look at people's faces laterally as they pass by.
posted by porpoise to Human Relations (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, sounds like a normal walk to me. Humans are odd, social creatures.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:45 PM on August 25, 2009

I do this too, but I always try to smile when I catch someones eye.
posted by kylej at 8:46 PM on August 25, 2009

do you (as in, the 'they' in the fpp) engage in this behaviour and I am very curious as to the m
otivation/intended end?

Yes. I'm walking down the street, thinking my own thoughts. 10 or so paces away, my eyes focus to realize someone is approaching me from the opposite direction. I make sure I'm not going to bump into them, adjusting my course if necessary, and then I look at something else so I don't have to awkwardly stare at their face until I pass them. Just as I start to pass them, I glance at them to see if I should smile or murmur 'hi', which I will basically only if they are also looking back at me.

Almost none of the time is this a flirtatious activity. It happens to me with both women and men, and basically it happens because this is what the line between "being totally unaware of all sidewalk-sharing traffic" and "staring in a creepy way at someone to the point where they feel uncomfortable" looks like.
posted by Miko at 8:46 PM on August 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

10 paces away, they look away from your direction.

That's about the right time to choose for a route around you. Maybe it would help if you shared your "pessimistic assumptions". What sinister thing do you think all these people are doing, exactly?

Also, this really suggests a followup question from others in your neighborhood:

There's this woman who passes by me on the street sometimes, and it seems like she's ALWAYS WATCHING ME. It's weird. I try to keep an eye on her as I pass to make sure she doesn't, like, pull out a knife.
posted by rokusan at 8:47 PM on August 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

One thing I do--if someone is wearing a t-shirt or something that I notice from a distance and wonder about, I don't want to seem to be checking them out so I will carefully avoid looking at them until they are close enough to read the shirt, when I'll take a quick glance. Maybe it's something like that.
posted by bink at 9:00 PM on August 25, 2009

I tend to make eye contact when people are about five paces away, smile, and say g'day.

Where I live, there are not so many people on the street as to make this feel uncomfortable, time consuming and weird, and this is one of the main reasons I moved out of the city I'd been born and raised in.
posted by flabdablet at 9:03 PM on August 25, 2009

Yes, please expand on the "pessimistic assumptions" thing. I don't know what you're getting at.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:05 PM on August 25, 2009

No. I ignore everyone. Hear no evil, see no evil, file no police reports.
posted by mattbucher at 9:09 PM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

It depends on how shy I'm feeling that day. On a bad day, being about 10 paces from contact will get me thinking "oh god, do I say hello, do I smile, what if they smile back, should I just nod my head, what if they stop to talk, what is my current facial expression, how much should I look, no no look away, wait that's even weirder look back at them, are they looking at me?"

And so on like you wouldn't believe. For cute girls, for old ladies, random guys, whatever.

It's next to impossible to tell what's going on in someone's head. This all sounds pretty normal.

(on a good day I smile and say 'good _____' in a sing-songy voice, because that's how I say short sentences.)
posted by Lemurrhea at 9:16 PM on August 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

You might be interested in this previous question: When to make eye contact eye contact with people on the street?
posted by amyms at 9:22 PM on August 25, 2009

That sounds largely like what I generally do. I mean, isn't it rude & discomforting to be walking towards a stranger, staring at them the whole while?

Probably moreso if you're a guy, and the person approaching is a woman, because that throws all kinds of spanners (alloyed from objectification & rape & the gaze & all that stuff) into the can of worms inside the pandora's box that you've inadvertently opened, simply by taking a stroll down the road.

So, from a distance, you might be looking at them as they approach. This might be absent-minded looking, or checking out, or wondering what that is written on their t-shirt, or isn't that the friend of so-and-so who I might have met six months ago at a concert, and what was her name again, and should I say hello?

But as you get closer, it's all "Oh, MY!!! What an interesting lamp-post that is over I check it out for a few paces!!!"

Then, being social creatures, it hits you that it's similarly rude to stride past people without acknowledging their existence, and hey - what if they really are that person you met, or what if they're hot & checking you out? So you might do that close-range glance that you mention, from a pace or two away.

This is normally the point at which the woman averts her gaze, having suddenly noticed the very same fascinating lamp-post, or maybe an intriguing bubblegum wrapper on the ground.

Or else, horror of horrors, you might find yourselves looking at each other at the exact same time! This is intolerable in modern urban society, so you need an escape route. You could feign a slight stumble, or suddenly decide that you really really need to fumble around & check that your keys are still in your pocket.

Better yet, she might be wearing a t-shirt with some kind of slogan on it - truly one of the greatest inventions of all time - so you can read the slogan instead as you pass, thus neutralising a potential minefield of gender relations.

It's crucial, though, that you keep your eyes fixed on the slogan. Don't attempt to make eye contact. Squint, if you have to, to emphasise how hard you're trying to read whatever witty caption she chooses to express her personality with, so she'll know that she's not being objectified.

This entire process applies equally, give or take a few minor details, with the genders reversed, or with same-sex interactions.

Hope this helps.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:54 PM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Interesting title. Also wondering about the pessimistic assumptions. Maybe refer to what you have written on your profile page for an answer?
posted by mlis at 10:09 PM on August 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have learned in self-defense courses to make as much assertive eye contact as possible with passersby, ESPECIALLY people (men) who I feel could be threatening to me, because it conveys that I'm not passive, and that I'm acutely aware of my surroundings. So I may be making eye contact specifically because someone gives me the creeps. I also make eye contact with people and smile or say "good morning", or even make a little friendly conversation! So basically, no, you cannot assume anyone's intentions based on a single item of nonverbal communication.
posted by so_gracefully at 12:13 AM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Better yet, she might be wearing a t-shirt with some kind of slogan on it - truly one of the greatest inventions of all time - so you can read the slogan instead as you pass, thus neutralising a potential minefield of gender relations.

Warning: this does not solve all problems for all people, especially if like me you cannot resist reading every word thrown in front of you. I was once drawn into a 20-minute argument with a stranger that boiled down to this:

She: You are not allowed to stare at a woman's chest that long!
Me: You are no allowed to wear a shirt with a fucking NOVEL written on it!
posted by rokusan at 1:06 AM on August 26, 2009 [5 favorites]

For what it's worth, a nod and a smile never (or at least rarely) hurt.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:04 AM on August 26, 2009

I'm a woman, not in Vancouver. In places that I can expect to be approached by panhandlers/junkies/potential threats, etc., I have a different and particular technique, but in safer areas I always look at the person coming toward me when it's an empty street except for us. I don't slow down or speed up (I'm not much of a dawdler, so I'm usually walking at a pretty resolute pace). I don't stare at them, but I do briefly seek their eye in a frank way, and if it's a man, I nod slightly with a calm, neutral (closer to friendly than unfriendly) expression, as a polite acknowledgment. If it's a woman, a slight smile and nod; warmer smile if it's a kid or elderly person or a person with a dog*; warm smile and greeting if it's someone recognizable from the neighborhood/familiar area, but not known well enough to stop and chat with.

I do this automatically (In other words, I don't plan out what I'm going to do), but I know my internal motivations/logic. A) I want to be confident and at ease myself; I don't want to stare at lamp posts or read T-shirts or try to surreptitiously check people out to see if they are a threat. B) I want to put them at ease so there isn't some weird embarrassment about simply passing each other on the street. With guys, I want them to know that they aren't frightening me so they don't have to worry about that, yet I want it clear that I'm not inviting any interaction. With others, it's more of a "hello, fellow human!" brief, unspoken moment, or a reassurance to them that they don't need to fear me or feel uncomfortable. The very brief eye-to-eye unspoken greet, when accomplished (sometimes people people stare at their feet or whatever) diminishes or eliminates the weird awkwardness - and essentially, I take the initiative to do it so they don't have to figure out what to do/where to look. (Sometimes, of course, other people have pretty much the same approach I do - and I can usually recognize/predict that they are going to be that way from relatively far away. These passings are pretty cool, with more of an overt friendly-stranger vibe, a tinge more mutual recognition.)

Most of the time, people react in kind. Sometimes, not very often, they don't react at all. Much more rarely, they stare rudely without smiling or nodding. Sometimes they approach with a frown or unfriendly expression, then look a bit surprised and then - a big smile! Except for the dog people, it seems to me that the biggest smiles come from the ones who looked most stern or unfriendly from the outset, which is odd but amusing.

I'm not quite sure how this matches up with the behavior you describe, but those are my actions and my intentions.

* This is a dog person thing. If I see someone unknown to me smiling in an especially friendly way when I'm with my dog, and they don't have one, I understand that they probably have their own dog at home (they always look at the dog first, smile, then smile at me - the tip-off!); if they have a dog with them, it's pretty much a given that some interaction will happen. The dogs want to meet, and the owners either allow or restrain, but either way there is some relatively friendly acknowledgment of each other.
posted by taz at 2:45 AM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks guys!

I'm usually just minding my own business, but recognize this particular behaviour "a lot." The looking away feels, to me, quite deliberate so it just kind of weirds me out. It's the initial looking away and then the "someone is staring at me" feeling at the 1 or 2 paces thing that registers.

Pessimistic assumption: there exist a subset of people who are vain, crave attention, and desire to affirm that they are indeed being paid attention to but are too self-centered to bother to be social.

Me as stare-ee: of course, I exhibit the male gaze thing but, no, I don't stare at people and if someone makes eye contact, I'll say "hi" or nod or something.
posted by porpoise at 8:14 AM on August 26, 2009

May I offer my own pessimistic assumption? The woman is looking at you to see whether you're checking her out. The pessimistic part is the assumption that

1) if she perceives that you _are_ checking her out, she'll give you a dirty look


2) if she _doesn't_ think you're checking her out, then she wonders why not

This happened to me just last week on a city street in Germany. I was walking with my girlfriend when a reasonably attractive woman, wearing a fairly sexy outfit (no décolletage or anything, but a form fitting skirt and high heels) approached us. At one or two paces away I could see from my peripheral vision that she looked right at my eyes as she passed.

My girlfriend and I discussed this phenomenon and came to the conclusion that she was almost certainly trying to see whether I was checking her out (which, it happens, I wasn't). We went on to surmise that she might want to be checked out, but if she catches you, gives you a dirty look. I forget exactly how we came to that conclusion. My girlfriend is a bit of a misogynist, though.
posted by santry at 8:15 AM on August 26, 2009

I've experimented with this during my daily walk in the park. The park isn't crowded, so usually, when I encounter someone walking towards me, it's just the two of us. My practice is to look into their face in a neutral, relaxed, receptive way, waiting to see if they would like to nod or speak.

I don't smile or speak, or put on a friendly face. I just passively look, as if I'm mildly curious. My unspoken communication is: "Would you like to nod or speak? If so, I'm ready to nod or speak, too." I never take the lead.

I would say that 70% of the time, the other person seems to welcome the opportunity to be friendly, and willingly returns my look by nodding or speaking. Perhaps 15% of the time, they nod or speak grudgingly, as if they don't want to make contact but are being forced to, because I'm looking at them and they feel a little pressure. This group comprises mostly men. And the other 15% of the time, the other person studiously avoids looking at me, so nothing happens.

So the interesting thing to me is that when it's just two people encountering each other in a sparsely populated situation, if one looks steadily at the other, the other invariably nods or speaks—if he makes eye contact at all. It's almost as if humans have no choice but to respond when they see you looking at them.

I'm an older guy who loves to come across beautiful women. I've found that beautiful women can be among the friendliest pedestrians out there, so long as there's nothing lecherous, suggestive, or aggressive in the way I look at them. Beautiful women, after all, are used to being looked at. The important thing is just to be receptive and ready, not to communicate anything with the look beyond mild interest. Most people, whether they're my gender or the opposite, seem quite comfortable with that.
posted by markcmyers at 8:43 AM on August 26, 2009

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