Day 5

Today was a holiday. I did not leave the house, so I didn't meet any strangers.

I will make up for today by meeting two strangers tomorrow, as close to back-to-back possible.

Improving the "Leave-Behind"

I started this project with little in the way of materials and infrastructure. Just this blog, which took less than five minutes to set up, and the strategy I had for approaching strangers.

It was my intention from the beginning to direct participants to the blog so they can see the artifact of our interaction. But I started the experiment without a proper leave-behind, like a business card or something like that, printed and ready. So each time I do this I write something by hand, and that part of the interaction is a bit fumbly and not smooth or polished.

Which is fine. But it makes it easier to forget to give someone information, or to give them the leave-behind in a time-constrained scenario. I don't want to wait for nice cards to be printed, and I'm not sure what I want them to say or look like, so this prototype leave-behind is what I will be giving the next four participants.

Day 4: Chacha

I'm only out today for a little while. Later I know I'll be hanging out at home all day, and even though many people are coming over for a party, many people who I haven't met, I think this is my best opportunity to make eye contact with someone.

I enter a coffee shop. There aren't many people here. A man using his computer - I choose not to interrupt him. A woman waiting for her drinks. Not sure why I don't approach her. Nerves.

Anyway, it was my intention to stay here and read, so I sit down. I'm also camping, waiting for the next participant.

Which doesn't take long. A pretty girl enters the coffee shop from the back door. I see her to my left, checking out the pastry case. Her clothing attracts my eye. She's wearing a long black knit kind of shawl/cloak over her outfit.

I know this is the person to ask. I can feel my nerves because, hey, she's attractive.

(What bearing at all does this have on whether or not I feel nervous? Seems to me that what I feel nervous about when approaching a stranger is what they'll think of me, if I will get rejected. Why does the attractiveness of the other person, or rather, my level of attraction to them, matter? No reason why this factor would have a bearing on the likelihood that they'll reject me.)

So I prepare myself to approach her. I put away my wallet and keys (they're sitting out on the table) and walk to the bathroom as a way of "feeling out the space" in which I am about to make my approach. I guess this is a way of creating safety. Oh, now that I'm writing, I know why I did this. I did this so that on my way back from the bathroom she would know that I had seen her. She may not have known that I noticed her when she was placing her order, as my back was to her (but I was looking).

(I am not sure exactly why this matters... Wait! Seems like an attempt to try to reduce vulnerability! I approach her, she says "how did you choose me, or when did you notice me? I noticed you when I came in and your back was towards me" and I would say "well, you walked in, stood to my left, and I noticed you at the pastry case, so I turned to check you out." Boom. Confession. Vulnerability.)

Anyway, after returning to my seat, I turn around and speak to her.

I say "hi" and she faces me and greets me.

"While you're waiting for your latte would you be willing to participate in an experiment with me?"

"Sure," she says, with a smile, two parts interest, and dash of caution.

"OK. Every day I ask a stranger to make eye contact with me for 60 seconds. Is that something you might be willing to do?"

"Sure," she says again, with a slightly bigger smile and little less caution.

"Don't you do that anyway?" (That is, doesn't that just happen in my day-to-day, or isn't that happening right now?)

"Yes," I say, "but here's how this works. I have a timer that's set to 60 seconds. During that time we'll sit and look at each other without speaking or looking away. Do you still want to do it?"

She says "sure" and turns to face her body towards me, sitting cross-legged on the bench.

I start the timer and we gaze at each other. Here is what I observe and feel:

I look at let right eye first, then her left. I change which of her eyes I am focusing on a few times. She also changes which of my eyes she is looking at, but appears to settle on the left eye. She smiles, then her smile straightens, then she smiles again. This happens a few times during the first 20 - 25 seconds. Her eyes are smiling the whole time.

First I notice the light brown of her eyes. Hazel, I  guess. Then the dark ring around her iris. Then the clay-red dash of color in the bottom right area of her left eye. I keep seeing more subtle details and more colors in her eyes.

Around 25 - 30 seconds she shifts her posture from centered, sitting straight and rests her head on her right hand, leaning a bit now towards her right side. My chin has been resting on my hands, my elbows on the table, the whole time. I maintain my posture, so now I'm looking a bit to my left to focus on her.

Around 40 seconds in it feels like we have our own space. A bubble of shared energy. It seems like there is less space between us and we are sharing a connection, like there is something warm and relaxed flowing back and forth between us. I feel calm and content, satisfied, like we accomplished something.

The timer beeps. She says:

"You turned into some kind of animal."

Wow! What an observation! I did not expect to hear this.

Either I did not ask her what kind of animal she sensed in me, or I forgot her answer. I wish I had asked and remembered.

I tell her about the connection I felt, about the space we had and the energy, synergy I felt flowing. I do not recall her response.

"Well, I have to get back to school," and she stands to leave.

"Wait, there's one more part. I also ask participants if they are willing to let me use their first name and their picture on my blog where I am documenting the experiment. Are you willing to do that?"

I get my forth "sure" and another smile. Great! She sits back down.

She asks what the blog is, and I tell her I can write down the URL. She pulls out a small rectangle of paper, and I reach to get my camera and pen.

"What have you learned from this?"

"That people are much more willing to participate in all parts of the experiment than I thought, including the use of their name and picture on the blog. I thought people would be less willing to do that."

Somehow I fumble with my pen and drop it on the floor. She picks it up.

This is the part of the experiment that is off script for me and I notice that I am more nervous than during the early parts. Delicious.

While I'm writing down the URL of this blog on her scrap of paper she says that I have a very authentic way of... How did she say it? Something like "doing this" or "interacting" or "approaching her."

And that's just it. I'm intentionally trying to approach people with no armor on. I am trying to get comfortable with that. That is something I want out of this experiment for myself. And also for others. I hope that I can be an inspiring example. I want to live in a world where people interact with each other, by default, in a more authentic way.

Her name is Chacha. She says it's French. It's pronounced like "shasha."

I take her photograph and she approves. She leaves the coffee shop and I immediately begin to write this post.

Thank you, Chacha.

Day 3: Olivia

Kasi and I were out and about in Portland today. Visiting breweries, shopping, etc.

The day was drawing to a close and we were on a mission to visit the ocean before returning home. Walking down to the water, we passed two girls who were sitting on the grass hanging out.

Upon reaching the ocean and touching the water (naked!) our mission was complete. However, I had yet to make eye contact with anyone today. I decided to approach the two girls and ask them to participate. Kasi accompanied me. This was the first time I approached more than a lone person and also had company with me.

"Ahoy!" I called out to them.

(Recollection of conversation in quotes below is imperfect, but should be pretty close.)

I give my usual introduction, directed at both girls but not at one of them in particular. This time, I ask if either of them would be interested in participating. The girl on the left responds immediately, so she's the one.

This time, unlike previous times, I have my explanation of the actual guts of the eye contact portion ready to go. I tell her how it works:

"I have a timer. It's set for 60 seconds. I'll start the timer, and it'll go off when the 60 seconds are over. During that time we'll sit and look at each other without speaking or looking away. Afterwards, we can talk about it. Or I can just disappear."

I ask her if she still wants to participate and she says "yes." I set the timer and we begin.

Observations from this session include: her eyes are brown; her hair keeps blowing in her face over her left eye; I mostly look into her right eye, though I do pay some attention to her left eye; I do not notice her changing which of my eyes she is looking into (I think she looks into my left eye the whole time, but cannot confirm this; before the experiment she mentions that she may look away a few times - however she actually does not; around (I think) 40 seconds in she begins to laugh, and we both laugh.

"That was intimate," she says after the timer goes off. "I almost kissed you."

I smile and say that I agree, it was intimate.

Next I move on to phase two and explain to her how I ask participants if they are willing to let me use their name and photograph on this blog as I document my experiences. She consents!

Kasi and I try a few attempts at taking her picture. However, the lighting is bad, and she isn't pleased with how the pictures are turning out, so we decide to let her image remain a mystery as far as this documentation is concerned.

By the way, her name is Olivia, and her friend's name is Zowie. (Not sure on Zowie's spelling.)

Zowie asked me about the purpose of the experiment. This time I talked about how it's an exercise in having interactions with strangers that quickly go off script (the "script" being topics like "what do you do?", "where are you from?", etc.), how I want to see what happens in those situations, and how that's when more vulnerable, and thus more authentic, interactions happen.

Interestingly, I've already noticed that, while the role that other participants in this experiment play is off script for them, the role that I play is increasingly on script. How I approach people, the structure of the experiment, and what I say to guide the interaction and establish that structure, is becoming increasingly scripted, refined, my words chosen very carefully.

I say that perhaps what I will focus on when my role becomes more scripted, established, and familiar is the fact that I am providing an unusual, unexpected, surprising, intimate experience for a stranger.

(I wonder if I will begin to experiment with alternative scripts to see if they lead to alternative results as the experiment matures?)

It's time to leave our two new friends. I give Olivia the URL of this blog. I wonder if she'll check up on it?

Before leaving, I ask Olivia if she'd like to share that kiss she mentioned, 'cause I'm game.

Alas, she has a boyfriend.


Guiding the Space After "Yes"

Reflecting on both of the interactions so far, with John and Ellen, I can see that there is some stumbling getting into the actual eye contact session itself.

The stumbling occurs after I ask the participant if they'll participate in the experiment. They say "yes" then I sit down and there is a space in which I do not direct the interaction, and they fill this space with words, usually a question for me. This gets us talking instead of making eye contact.

I am going to work with this space. Here's the change:

They say "yes." Now I sit down and say:

"Great! Here's how it works. We're going to sit across from each other and make eye contact for 60 seconds with no interruptions. I have a timer. We'll begin when I start the timer. After 60 seconds the timer will beep, and we'll be done. Once we start, let's avoid speaking and looking away from each other. Just focus on looking at the other person's eyes."

Now that they know more about what they've said "yes" to, let's confirm their consent again. This is important based on my interaction with Ellen, who initially consented, and then withdrew consent after learning more about the parameters.

"Now that you know the parameters, are you still willing to give it a try? Do you have any questions?"

With this change to the script, I am now providing guidance through the space after the initial "yes" and laying the structure of the experiment out in front of them before we do it, in a clearly explained manner, so they know the details of what they're consenting to, and confirming their willingness to participate.

This should help avoid a few things:

1. Getting bogged down in conversation before making eye contact. There's plenty of time for talking afterwards.

2. Talking during the eye contact phase. People do this in part because they're nervous, and because the experiment start/end markers aren't clearly defined.

The reality is that everything is the experiment: the eye contact, the before/after interaction, the time leading up to our meeting and the time following our parting. It's just easier to start by explaining the experiment as the eye contact period, get that done, and then expound on the ideas and motivations driving the activity after the eye contact has been made.

By taking the initiative during the space after the first "yes" I believe I can make the structure of the experiment clearer to the participant, confirm their consent after they know all the parameters, and create a higher quality eye contact experience.

Day 2: Ellen

Ellen did not consent to participate in the experiment.

I was having a late breakfast at a small diner. It was quiet. Most of the patrons were alone, and there was no conversation or music. I looked around the room and noticed an older woman, perhaps in her 50's, with short, straight grey hair, a round face and red-rimmed glasses sitting at a table across the room, reading a book and the paper. The other patrons were men. I decided that I would approach this woman.

I ate my breakfast and read my book while considering if this was something I was going to do. I wanted to have my breakfast finished and be on my way out, so that after the interaction, rejected or not, I'd be leaving the diner. To avoid potential awkwardness of getting rejected, or having a successful experiment, and then walking back to my table to sit there and eat and read alone.

(In hindsight, this probably wouldn't have been awkward. I think I could make such scenarios not feel awkward. But it's easy to get caught up in these kinds of thoughts and planning in the moment. Why would I feel awkward in such situations, anyway? Imagining the situation now, and feeling how my body responds to the hypothetical, it would be because I would be feeling some shame, I think. In my imagination I see myself not making eye contact after the interaction, rejected or not.)

I think about how to approach her and what I will say. I think about how I will answer the question I know she will ask in one form or another: "why are you doing this?" (If the interaction gets that far. She could just be like "no" and that's the end of it.)

I finish my meal and I'm stalling by reading, deciding if I am going to approach her or not. More people have entered the restaurant, and there's still no music or conversation, so increasingly it feels like there is an audience for what I am about to do. I can feel the imagined pressure of people overhearing our unusual interaction. It feels harder to initiate this encounter when I perceive that there is an audience.

The feeling in my stomach is one that I have when I know that I want to do something, and that I'm scared. I want to ask this woman to participate in the experiment. I want. Period. So I am going to do it. It doesn't matter that I am scared. I just pick up my things and calmly walk over to her table.

"Excuse me," I say, smiling. And I pause for a moment to allow her attention to switch from reading to this new, unexpected conversation. I breathe in this space so that the interaction isn't rushed, so that I take my time when speaking and am very present.

She looks up and I am already making eye contact with her. (I am very conscious about doing this when I approach people, in general, and especially when performing this experiment.)

"This may be a bit unusual." Pause again. "I am doing a life experiment in which, every day, I make eye contact with a stranger for 60 seconds." (I may or may not have mentioned that I'm doing this for 30 days. I cannot remember.) I detect, if not receptiveness in her face, at least not outright rejection. "Would you like to do this with me?"

She smiles and says "okay." I say "okay" and sit down at her table across from her, and put my book and to-go container on the floor.

I say something about having a timer. I'm not sure exactly what I say.

We begin to have a conversation. Almost immediately she asked me about why I am doing this. I say that it is an exercise in vulnerability. It's a rejection exercise. I tell her that, for starters, I am asking people who I think are likely to say "yes" to participating in the experiment, but also that I am not really sure what "a person who is likely to say 'yes'" looks like. As the experiment goes on, as I become more comfortable doing this, my intention is to ask more people who look more likely to say "no." Perhaps I will be surprised! Maybe way more people will say "yes" than I anticipate. Maybe you can't look at a person and know how they will respond. (Probably.) I assume that I will become more comfortable doing this. I am curious to know what I will be like having done this every day for 30 days.

We talk about how people tend not to maintain eye contact when speaking with each other. We often look away. She tells me that she doesn't think she'll be able to maintain eye contact with me during a conversation without looking away. I tell her that the idea of the experiment is that we won't be talking during the 60 seconds. We'll just be looking at each other.

She doesn't think she is going to be able to do that.

I ask her if it would make her uncomfortable, and she says that it would. She says that if she had more practice doing it when she was younger ("my age" or "like me" - can't remember) then she could do it.

I ask her if we changed the parameter from 60 seconds to 30 seconds if she would do it then.

"No," she says.

"I'm not gonna do that."

"Okay," I respond, satisfied and smiling, still making eye contact with her. "Thank you for the conversation and enjoy your day." (Or something similar.) She says "you're welcome" and I pick up my things and leave.

As I walk away from her table, out of the diner, and to my car, I have a smile on my face. I feel light and relaxed. I feel awake. The muscles in my back, which have been hurting, often, this week, are not tense and aching. They are relaxed. I feel fluid and flowing, free.

I was not rejected. She did not consent to participate in the experiment. Such different things. Nevertheless, I got the rush that comes with being vulnerable and asking of someone something that I want, a request that they may reject. I didn't get what I asked for, but I got my rush.

Before I left her table I asked her for her name.


I introduce myself and we shake hands.

"Nice to meet you, Ellen."

Day 1: John

I walked into the local sandwich shop and ordered my lunch at the counter. During that time I scoped out the place. There were three people in the dining area, each sitting alone. A woman reading a book, another woman eating her lunch and not reading, and a man in the back who was using his cell phone and not eating.

The women, especially the one eating and not reading, would have been easy to ask. But I've done that.

So after I completed my transaction at the counter I immediately walked over to the man without giving myself time to reconsider.

My memory is fuzzy on what exactly was said. Anyway, here is what I recall from our interaction:

"Hi. Sorry for interrupting your testing." (I meant to say "texting" and corrected myself. Was just a tad nervous, but not much.)

"I'm doing this life experiment in which, every day, I ask a stranger if they will make eye contact with me for 60 seconds. Is this something you'd be willing to do with me?"

He agreed to participate.

(Holy shit it worked! That was surprisingly easy. These things tend to be like that. I know it, and prove it time and again after making jumps like this, but it's easy to forget. The buildup before the experience is way overblown compared to the actual experience. Getting pierced is like this, too. I think we tend to do this when we anticipate vulnerability and/or pain coming, whether it's physical, emotional, whatever.)

He asked me if the eye contact needed to be unbroken, and I said yes. I was already making eye contact with him (as I do) and he asked me if we had started already. I said no, that I had a timer, and we could start now. We did.

He asked if it was OK to talk, and I said it's better if we don't, but it's OK if we do. He seemed a bit nervous. He looked away a few times, and remarked on that when it happened. We talked a bit during the experience. He told me it felt strange. He seemed happy and his eyes were alert and smiling. I remember them being light blue.

I think the 60 seconds went by very quickly. I forgot to ask him what he thought.

Afterwards we talked a bit about the experiment, specifically my past experience with these kinds of interactions, and what's motivating me to do it. (More on that in a different post.)

Then I went for the next level: the question that opens me up to rejection again. I explained how I am documenting this experiment and would like it if I could use the first name and a photograph of each participant in my documentation. I asked him if he would be OK with this, and he said "yes" again! So I took his picture.

This is John.

John, thank you for participating in the experiment. It was a pleasure to meet you and make eye contact with you. See you around the sandwich shop!

I feel awake. I feel alive.

Getting Started

I'm nervous about this one.

So far I've done this a few times. Once in a yoga studio after a class ended. That was the first time. We only did it for 30 seconds. The next time was a year later, in my office. That experience occurred with other people around, which lead to me sending an email out fo the office mailing list inviting people to participate. I ended up making eye contact with two other people in that same office.

Then I decided to try this as a 30-day life experiment.

What will it be like to get this vulnerable every day? Will I become more comfortable with it? If so, what will I do next to push myself into new vulnerable territory?

How often will I get rejected? Who will reject me? Who will I approach? So far, everyone with whom I've done this, who I have approached, have been women. What will be it like to approach guys?

How will I present this experience to people? Do I acknowledge the unusual nature of this invitation?

I'd like to take a portrait of each person who participates and post it, along with their first name, on this blog, when I do entries describing my experiences. What will they say to that? I think I won't lead in with it.

I'm about to head out of the office to find my first participant. I have so many questions. I just don't know how this is going to go. I'm nervous about possibly being rejected, about what people will think of me, of being vulnerable.

And that's exactly why I am doing this. Because I am scared, because I feel alive and invigorated when I'm vulnerable, because it seems like a really valuable, interesting space to explore, yet unfortunately quite unusual.

Here we go.