Looking away

Recently I was on the way into a supermarket. Nothing special about that you might think. But as I was about to enter I spotted a former work colleague – one of my own batch of professionals, who I trained with. I hadn’t seen her for about a year.

It was a Sunday – about 14:00. This colleague walked past me, about 5 feet to my right. Her gaze was focussed at some point in the distance. So at first I thought she did not see me. As you normally do – I look in her direction. And all this is happening in microseconds – I’m thinking she will catch some bloke (me) looking her way and look my way, and I’ll say ‘Hi good to see you again’.

But no – she keeps the gaze straight ahead. “Hmmm…” and you might be thinking, “Nothing strange about that. It happens all the time people don’t see each other because they are so busy and wrapped up in their own thoughts.” Well as I’m writing this I’m seeing her passing by in my minds eye. I could replay that video clip a thousand times. And when I do, I see her eyes focussed in the distance and not moving from left to right even in the slightest. Its a look straight ahead.

I have no reliable way of verifying what is in anybody’s consciousness. So I cannot know with absolute certainty what she was looking at and why she did not see me looking straight over to her in passing. But what did that gaze in the distance mean? It clicked – and here it is. I’ve done similar. When I’ve seen some person I do not want to take notice of, I’ve deliberately looked in the distance – just like that. And when did that I would not have been focussing on anything in particular. I’d just look ahead just to avoid eye contact.

So, here was I on the ‘receiving end’ I now think. I could never know what was in the mind of the other, but the closest approximation, is to look at myself first i.e. when I did that sort of thing – and make some kind of extrapolation.

Now some might be thinking that that was the only such incident. No – it wasn’t. The same happened about a year ago. A male professional colleague who knew that I thought he was a plonker passed within 3 feet of me. I always look plonkers in the eye, because I have nothing to fear. So I looked over to him. Guess what. It was that same kind of robotic gaze – at some amazingly interesting ‘non-object’.

What I realised is that when you wilfully avoid the gaze of another person you really do not focus on something of interest. You simply look ahead, like a robot. If you’re truly distracted by something interesting in the distance and miss sight of a familiar face, then your eye movements would not be blank and straight ahead. You’d be looking at the ‘thing’ that has grasped attention but also vary your gaze to surrounding objects. I’ve also checked that I can pick up very easily if someone within a cone of 5 feet from my eyes looks at me.

Well – in the case of the plonker avoiding my gaze, that’s understandable. But when it’s someone who has nothing I know of ‘with me’ – it now puts me to wonder again about human nature.

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