Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Eye contact

Given that I have had this blog for three and a half years and have spent large portions of that time in Latin American countries, I can't believe I haven't already written an obvious, semi-played out, culture-shock-themed post about eye contact! I mean, this post was begging to be carelessly dashed out years ago! But since I am getting tired of reporting on my daily doings in Buenos Aires (went to panaderia, bought a baguette, ate a sandwich, walked around, did laundry, ate another sandwich, got dripped on by dirty water, etc.), I am going to make some wry and incisive cultural observations.

Here's the thing about eye contact in Latin America -- it can be a dangerous thing. The first time I ever spent significant time in Latin America was when I studied abroad in Chile my junior year of college. During our orientation, the program director sat us wide-eyed Stanford kids down for a chat about how to function day-to-day in Santiago without getting our asses kicked. One of the first things she told us was that we should avoid making unnecessary eye contact with strangers, and we should especially avoid smiling at people. Turns out, if you're a friendly American twenty-one year old female and you go around smiling at every dude with a rat-tail on the bus, you're going to have yourself a bus full of would-be pololos (boyfriends)by the time you get off at your stop. Not good.

This is a difficult thing for Americans to get used to, I think. With some notable regional exceptions, Americans tend to be a pretty friendly bunch, and we like to acknowledge strangers with a smile, or at least a cursory head bob. Where I grew up in Michigan, for example, when you passed someone on the street, you'd smile, or at the very least least nod at them. I mean, Detroit's not the South, so you're not going to invite every stranger in for a glass of iced tea or anything, but you'll at least acknowledge someone's presence. Similarly, when you're running, you smile and wave at other runners. When you see a policeman, you say hi. Of course, a lot of these rules don't apply in a certain region of the United States, which will go unnamed, but rhymes with "the Schmorth Schmeast," but in great swaths of the U.S., it's completely normal and expected to smile at strangers.

But just as I learned pretty quickly in Chile that you probably don't want to be smiling at that guy in the denim jacket and stonewashed jeans on the subte, I figured out pretty quickly in Brazil that you don't want to be smiling at that policeman with the bat, gun and helmet. It's just not a good idea. Today, when I was out on my daily walk in Buenos Aires, I realized that eye contact is a hard thing to avoid, especially for me. First of all, as I mentioned, I'm from the Midwest. Second, I'm a starer. It's true, I'll freely admit it: I like to stare at people. Not in a creepy way, of course, but I do like looking at people/judging them by their clothes, so it's hard for me to avoid.

As I was walking around the little lake in Palermo Park today, I kept accidentally making eye contact with sweaty, shirtless dudes with long hair, each of whom had apparently already been giving me smoldering, off-putting stares when I happened to glance at them. Ew. That's the danger of Argentine eye contact, I think. If you're a woman and you even happen to glance at a man, chances are he was already staring at you, and chances are even better that he'll then take your eye contact as an invitation to lick his lips, give you a come-hither look, or say something involving the words "amor," "mamí," or "lindeza." It's exhausting. And gross.

And that's just the porteño men. If you make eye contact with a woman, she'll most likely look you up and down as if you had a mild case of leprosy, and then sneer at you until you break eye contact or your self-esteem evaporates, whichever happens first.

I think I'm getting better at sullenly staring ahead and avoiding people's gazes, actually. The good thing about Argentina is that unlike in the U.S., there are no obnoxious strangers telling you to "smile" when you are walking along without an ear-to-ear grin on your face. You know what I'm talking about. It's always a guy, he's always unattractive, and he's always actually trying to pick you up, but only ever succeeds in enraging you. And by you, I mean me. ANYWAY, I like that Argentina is a country where you're free to stalk about, scowling and ignoring passersby, without anyone accosting you for not being cheery enough. Ideally, though, I'd like to find a happy medium in some country where it's okay to smile at policemen but not okay to order a stranger to smile. Canada, maybe? I'll keep searching.

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