You look, but do you see?

Do you ever feel as if you must be invisible? You know the feeling you get when you sit down in a restaurant, and then four different servers walk past you five different times without acknowledging you’re there. Or when you’re walking down the street and you see someone approaching whom you’ve met before – and then they don’t meet your eye and continue walking past you.

Feeling ignored or left out is an awful feeling. Even if we have a strong sense of self, we start to wonder what’s wrong with us. It doesn’t matter if we’re slighted by a friend or snubbed by a total stranger – it still hurts.

Last week I read about a study that demonstrated just how much we look to other people, even strangers, for acceptance. Researchers at Purdue University randomly selected people walking on the campus. A research assistant walked by each of them, and did one of three things: made eye contact, made eye contact and smiled, or just looked in their general direction without eye contact. Each person was then immediately asked by another researcher how connected they felt to other people. Those who did not get any eye contact felt more disconnected from others than did either group who got eye contact.

The reality is that no one wants to feel excluded. We all have a need to be part of a community of some kind. A stranger not making eye contact may only lead to a momentary feeling of disconnection, but what about situations where it happens over and over again with groups we want to be a part of?

It turns out that for children who are left out, that feeling can lead to them being less active. In a study by Jacob Barkley of Kent State University, children played a virtual ball game with each other. Some children got the ball fairly often and others very few times. Then they all went to play in a real gym. The children who had been excluded in the online game ended up being less physically active in the gym. They tended to choose sedentary activities such as drawing or reading alone more of the time.

Previous studies have already shown that being ostracized leads people to eat more. We also know that people who are lonely tend to have weaker immune systems. Now we see that children won’t be as active if they feel excluded. Clearly as humans we are healthiest when we are part of a group, and feel supported and loved by that group.

So why do we ignore each other? Does the message from childhood, “Don’t talk to strangers!” sink in so deeply that we are unable to reach out to others? Are we too afraid of rejection to take a risk?

Flip it around and think about how good it feels when you’re out somewhere, and someone admires what you are wearing. Or imagine that you’re at a social event where you don’t know anyone, and someone comes up and engages you in conversation – don’t you breathe a sigh of relief that you’re no longer standing there looking awkward? Doesn’t it feel good when you walk in a room, and someone greets you by name?

Everyone wants to be noticed, to be appreciated, even by strangers. We all need someone who says, either with words or actions, “I see you.” Can you make an effort to be that person?  As William Butler Yeats once said, “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.”

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2 thoughts on “You look, but do you see?

  1. I have sometimes felt that as I grow older, I’ve acquired a cloak of invisibility. Seriously, though, in addition to the stranger danger thing, people may feel that they need to rush through life and connecting with strangers, however briefly, will somehow entangle them and complicate their lives, when all they want is to slice through their environment and get on with the next thing on their list.

    • Yes, sadly, many of us rush around every day without really seeing the people or places around us. But I find that when I slow down and even take the time to say a few words to someone I come in contact with, my day is richer for it.

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