Because of my shyness, eye contact is not something that comes easily or naturally to me. If I know you, I will engage you with my eyes. If our relationship is close, if I feel that you and I have an open rapport, one of trust and intimacy, I won't take my eyes off you.
Hopefully, not in a creepy way.
At work, I have been perceived as cold, as dismissive. I will walk through the halls, passing coworkers, with little more than a brief nod of the head, a minimal acknowledgement that says, yes, I see you, I know you exist. Excuse me while I negotiate the obstacle you have made of yourself. If that coworker is someone from either my team or is on a team with which I interact, I will make brief eye contact, nod or say a muttered "hello," and move on.
No, I may not seem warm and fuzzy when I move from point A to point B at work, but it doesn't mean I'm cold and prickly.
I have been like this for a long time. I think it's because while I'm moving from point A to point B, that's all I want to do: get to where I'm going. While I walk, my head is also full of thoughts: about what I need to do when I reach point B; about a project in which I'm involved; about expectations that must be met. I also think about people, about relationships. About things I need to do at home. About my book, and Roland Axam. About politics. About beer. About current events. About women. About the next blog post I'm going to write.
My head gets full sometimes. I don't like to further clutter it with unplanned interactions.
Hmm... that did sound cold and prickly. Somebody, please, back me up, here!
I may have behaved this way at Blog Out Loud. In the time before the event started, I did try to mingle. I did approach people I recognized and said "hello." I waved to some from across the hall. But I probably seemed aloof to some, and for that I apologize. That's not me. I blame my shyness.
I also walked with this one-minded ignorance in high school. Between classes, I would concern myself only with getting to my locker, getting the books for my next class, and getting to the right room, on time. If I passed a friend, I'd nod a hello but keep moving. With others, I walked past without acknowledgement. I was deep in my own headspace, dealing with being an awkward teen who just wanted to get through the day. I didn't want to be distracted by other teens who were trying to figure themselves out, too.
Her name was Linda.
I knew her as a clarinet player in our school band, where I also played trumpet. She was a year behind me, so we shared no classes. At lunch, I sat with my friends in a student lounge, away from the cafetorium and the throngs of the other grades. I didn't even know if she shared the same lunch period.
We would pass one another in the halls, I would later learn, but I never even noticed. "It's because I was looking straight ahead, and never down," I playfully joked, later, remarking on the fact that she was easily a foot shorter than me. She was cute, but was not a person who would make me look twice.
We finally talked at a party at a Christmas party, hosted for the band by one of our fellow musicians. Normally, at such a gathering, I wouldn't mingle, wouldn't talk to people I didn't know. I was much more shy then, was much more prone to stay close to my friends.
But my best friend, Stu, was with me, and he had struck up a conversation with his neighbour, Helen, who was also in the band, and she and Linda were as inseparable as I was with Stu. And we all became involved in the discussion.
At some point, I mentioned a New Year's Eve party that I would be attending, at another friend's house. Linda, who largely spoke to me while Helen and Stuart chatted, voiced that the party sounded like fun (though, I don't know why: the party was with a few friends in a basement, listening to music. There would be alcohol, but my friend's parents would be home, so we never got out of control).
Without thinking, I said, "You should come."
"I'd love to," was her response.
What had I done? I didn't know this girl outside of the band, had not ever spoken to her, hadn't even noticed her in the halls, and now she was coming with me to a party. As a... date? I hoped that after this evening—the Christmas party—that she would forget about the New Year's party. We had a week before school ended for the holidays, so if I didn't see her, I might be able to dodge that bullet.
In the last days of class, Linda spoke to me as we passed in the halls, breaking my train of thought. "Hi, Ross!" she said, waving to me, drawing my attention. "When is the party? Where did you want to meet?" Arrangements were made. Our date was solidified. I would be arriving at Donald's house with a guest.
The party was exactly as I imagined: main lights out, low lights and black lights, a lava lamp, and 70s music. Friends mellowing, drinking wine and beer. Donald's mom checking in on us, making sure we were behaved, bringing a tray of flaming Sambucas in shot glasses as a mid-evening treat.
Linda was quiet, nervous, shy. I sympathized: if placed in the same situation, where I didn't know anybody (most of my friends at this party attended a different school), I would crawl into a shell. To her credit, she did try to engage in conversation, and we didn't leave her out of any discussions. As the evening drew on, she seemed to grow more comfortable. Sitting beside one another on the sofa, I put an arm around her shoulder, for comfort, and she leaned into me.
At midnight, we all raised a glass of wine. Hugs and kisses went around. Linda and I kissed, but when our lips touched, it was the kind of kiss that you give to a family member. At least, for me, that's how it seemed. Which was good: I hadn't planned to have a date, hadn't ever considered Linda as anyone other than a fellow band member. But I did enjoy her company, had no regrets of bringing her. If anything, she would be more than someone I would pass in the school halls without noticing.
I walked her home, eventually holding her hand as our evening was coming to a close. I kissed her good night, said I'd make sure to notice her in the halls, and went home.
I noticed her on the first day back at school. We were walking toward each other. Our eyes met. I smiled. But just as I was about to say "hi," her eye contact broke and she made a deliberate turn of the head, to look away. As I had been slowing down to talk, she continued past without a word.
I had been snubbed.
I turned to watch her walk but she never looked back.
I encountered her in the hall, later that day, and again she turned her head and looked away as she approached. I called out, "Linda," but she ignored me, walked on. At band practice, she ignored me. She sat in the front row, with the other woodwinds; I was at the back, in the brass section. We had no opportunity to talk, and when we wrapped up, she left before I could break free of my friends in my section.
What had I done? I asked myself. A couple of weeks ago, I didn't know this person. Then, we were at a party together. And then, she was treating me as though I had acted inappropriately with her.
It was easy enough to get over her treatment of me. We hadn't known each other long enough to form a relationship—I didn't even think I wanted one. For a few days after her snub, I would deliberately turn my own head away as soon as I saw her, to mock her.
Childish, I know.
Although there had been no emotional investment with Linda, it bothered me to not know what I had done to warrant such a deliberate rejection. The rejection didn't upset me: the reason for the rejection, and not knowing its cause, did.
When I pass somebody and don't acknowledge them, it's not personal. I'm not ignoring them: my mind is simply somewhere else. I'm not for purposely giving someone a cold shoulder.
Because I know how it feels to be ignored, and I don't like it.