Why I Believe It’s Important to Look a Stranger in the Eye

Matt Lafleur avatar

by Matt Lafleur |

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I’m not proud of this, but I often avoid looking strangers in the eye. An example is when I pass panhandlers or other people asking for money while I’m riding in my van. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone with a sign asking for a job, food, or money, or a firefighter soliciting donations in a boot — I’ll rarely look at them. Instead, I’ll ignore their gaze and stare at my phone.

Like me, I think many people prefer to focus on familiar things, rather than on strangers. Maybe one reason I avoid their gaze is more practical: I don’t drive and am moderately disabled due to Friedreich’s ataxia. So, I can’t physically help the strangers I pass as a passenger. Also, I almost never carry cash, so I don’t have any to hand out anyway.

But the main reason I don’t look at strangers is because I don’t want to feel uncomfortable. For example, with panhandlers, by looking into their eyes, perhaps it’d be easier for me to see how our roles could have been reversed. 

Yet is making eye contact really such a big deal? It seems to be important when engaging an audience. But it goes beyond effective communication. Eye contact is key to connecting with other humans, and it is “critical to our capacity for empathy,” according to Psychology Today. 

When I refuse to look others in the eye, I miss out on the opportunity to connect with them. Rather than being able to see the humanity in them, I am afraid of feeling uncomfortable. 

Given all of this, is it surprising that others might avoid looking into my eyes after seeing my wheelchair?

This is sometimes a source of frustration for me, and I often find myself wondering why strangers avoid my gaze in a crowd, or why someone might speak about me to an able-bodied person who is with me, rather than talking directly to me. 

In those situations, I want to say, “I’m right here. You can talk to me.”

Maybe strangers see me like I see others outside my van windows. Maybe I’m someone they can’t help. Maybe it pains them to picture themselves in my shoes. Maybe they don’t want to contemplate that the only difference between them and me is a pair of wonky genes. 

After thinking about all of this, I have vowed to make an effort to make eye contact with others. Even if I can’t physically help them if they are in need, I can at least let them know that they are seen, and that they matter. We could all use a reminder like that once in a while.

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