Do you know the difference between a small town and a big city? No, it’s not the size of buildings or the traffic density. It’s certainly related to population, but there’s no clear line of distinction.
It’s in the eyes.
In a smaller community, you’re expected to meet another person’s eyes. In a larger community, you’re expected NOT to.
I was not aware of that distinction when my wife and I moved from Prince Rupert, a city of about 10,000 on the remote north coast of B.C., to Toronto, then hovering around three million.
I walked down the street towards the subway station, expecting to see people I knew. Indeed, I did—people who worked in the same building, people who ate with me in the company cafeteria, people who sent me inter-office memos.
But they didn’t see me. They walked with their eyes focused straight ahead, and down. They never looked up.
It felt almost as if they didn’t want to see anyone they knew.
Perhaps it’s a function of crowding. When you don’t feel crowded, you’re less defensive. As Sheila Heti noted in an article in Spacing magazine, “Privacy is so scarce in a city, it is gracious to look away.”
And less risky, too. Meeting a stranger’s eyes on the subway could be considered harassment. Meeting strangers’ eyes on downtown streets could seem like an invitation to ask for money, to solicit for sex, to beat you up.
Hockey players and chimpanzees apparently share a common trait—to look directly into another’s eyes is to challenge them to a fight.
Of course, the reverse is also true. Those who retire from a big city to a rural community sometimes feel as if they have no privacy left. People expect to discuss church business in the supermarket, politics at the soccer game, personal concerns at the council meeting.
“It is difficult to accept that we really are free,” Heti observed, “to look or not look as we choose, without affecting anyone for the better or worse. It feels as though what it means to look at someone, and what it means to decide to not look, is as central an ethical dilemma as any; that the question of our responsibility to each other really comes down to how we interact with people we do not know.”
Interaction—that’s the crux. We humans seem naturally curious about faces. Long before conscious thought, babies stare into their parents’ eyes. When we take pictures, we include people’s faces. In the family portraits we hang on our walls, eyes are always central.
But what are we looking for, when we meet another’s eyes? Heti uses the word “communion”—not the formalized ritual of worship services, but the recognition of our common humanity.
So our eyes lock, if ever so briefly. We admit to each other that we have just shared an embarrassing moment, that we all stumble sometimes, that petty officials can lack empathy, that someone made a kind gesture.
Then the moment of intimacy passes, and we go back to guarding our separateness again.