Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Make Eyes, Toronto!

I'm looking at the front page of The Grid, the free toronto weekly. It announces the 2001 Mensch Awards, to "50 people who made Toronto better this year." I love the concept. What are the many acts of civic engagement worthy of acknowledgment? I haven't looked at the list yet, but it immediately got me speculating. How many of them had specific resolutions for the year? And how many of those resolutions was aimed - directly or indirectly - at the idea of improving the place we live?

I have to look at my own intentions and efforts. I've volunteered places and made contributions to one cause or another - which I won't enumerate here. But the inspiration to specifically improve the place I live? That, I have not acted upon. And yet, I have a clearly defined and persistant annoyance with Toronto, one that shows no sign of going away. Which is: that Torontonians avoid public contact with strangers. I've posted about this before: "Land of the No-Look Pass" October 2010. Maybe I should do somethng about that, take that on? No doubt!

So here I am, making a resolution, in the form of a promise to my city. I'm going to do something about eye contact, see if I can't tease a few more face-forward acknowledgements from people.

I'm going to start a movement: "Make Eyes, Toronto!". I'm going to present my case, my ingredient for making Toronto a better city, more friendly and liveable. Which is: by looking one another in the eye, by taking the time to recognize strangers as human beings, by developing a different sensibility around public contact with strangers, finding ways to connect that feel safe, are engaging, and that pull us deeper into the fabric of social life.

How will I go about this? Posters come to mind. Small posters, 4x6 or 5x8 maybe, at various eye levels, with a graphic of a pair of eyes, and the words: Make Eyes, Toronto! Maybe another blog, with those words as a title, propaganda for eye contact - all the reasons in favor. I could write up a few pieces to send to local publications, like The Grid.

It's not at all 'me' to do something like this....I don't know that I'll actually do it. But I know I won't if I can't even write about doing it. And I like the idea.What response might it get? What could it lead to?

I'm going to encourage people to look one another in the eye, and to smile or nod, say good morning or hello. I'm going to ask Torontonians to acknowledge one another and to consciously greet one another.

I'm already imagining the kinds of reactions this might get. I know that to even consider doing this makes lots of people uncomfortable. Looking people in the eye is a kind of invitation. People may feel that they risk unwanted and unsafe contact by making invitations to strangers. That's a fact.

But, aren't there dozens of times and situations - every day - when it would be perfectly safe and non-intrusive, to smile at someone you would normally pretend wasn't there? How about the person across the aisle on a bus, or in an elevator, or while standing in line.

If the notion is at first intimidating, consider that initially, until you get the hang of it, you can direct you glances and smiles at people who are too distant for either of you to initiate conversation. In traffic, to the person in the car opposite you instead of alongside. or a person in that bus going the other way. A gentle step into this public mode could be to shift our ways with people we see regularly, but are impersonal with: those cashiers bussers and mail deliverers, ticket-takers and grocery shelf stockers that we pass every day.

I honestly don't know to what extent I'll mount a campaign. I like the idea of the "eye" posters. Hmmm.... Regardless, I'm at least commiting to being more engaging myself. I'm going to 'be the change I want to see' as some sage apparently suggested. And we'll see what happens.


  1. There is no such thing as "Torontonians"...Only you...I engage people with my eyeballs all the time, & thus, have no complaint with lack of eye contact in Toronto...You have to engage to get engaged...I suspect, as you yourself suspect, that you have not been engaging as much as you should & in fact "Torontonians" are you...Having people engage me though, if I am not in the mood can be annoying...So it is a question of being sensitive...But more importantly, one must be visually engaging for people to want to look at you...Which means looking good & feeling happy & wearing something bright or eye-catchy to get their attention...Plus it helps to have something going on in your life which is interesting to talk about, because once you engage someone there is always the risk of conversation...People approach me all the time when I am feeding Trumpeter swans...Why? because they are interested...

  2. Very good points, Sari. And I agree with you to a degree. I AM influenced by others' avoidance of eye contact, and by their reactions to it, and so am less likely to engage in it myself. Guilty as charged. And it's something I intend to change. However, I disagree with you in that, I've lived in other places where people were so much more open to engaging in public, and the social atmosphere reflected that. Seattle is completely different in this respect. People simply acknowledge one another in public situations, as a matter of course, which makes it much easier for people to have those conversations and to respond to the interesting things about one another. And other places I've spent time - like Montreal or North Carolina - I find also to be places where strangers are willing to look you in the eye, to smile, etc.
    You, my friend, are the lovely exception!

  3. Have you tried it? The signage, especially the surprise and mystery I think will be part of small signs posted at differing eye levels, will help to create a buzz about it.

    I must confess that when I am in Toronto, I am so full of family that I often miss others and their reactions to me.

    No matter what anyone says, I always feel comfortable in Toronto, and I appreciate the absence of the racial tension that is so common in most American cities.