Here's my theory: I've noticed this weird "no look" policy that San Diego girls and young women — and even some San Diego boys and young men — seem to have. You pass them on the street, sit across from them at a café, and it's not just that they don't look at you. They actively don't look, which gives them a weirdly defiant focus, like novice actors trying not to acknowledge the audience or camera. I recently returned from a trip to New York and New England, and there, even in the cities, strangers would look up for a moment and meet my eye: a momentary acknowledging, a disinterested assessment, not intimidated, without attitude, and then back to business. Usually, the eye contact would last for under a second, perhaps accompanied by a facial expression, often a kind of neutral half-smile with no effusive feeling. After a few days of this common decency, I began to sense a camaraderie with the people around me.
Back here in San Diego, I tried to establish the same sort of eye contact: long enough for recognition, shorter than an invitation, wherein some fleeting form of human respect might occur. I wasn't even trying to be friendly, not exactly — I didn't want to smile or say hello. And I wasn't being too overt or assertive: I know it's not polite to stare. But I found the responsive moments to be few and far between.
Was it arrogance? Fear? Bad attitude? A different sense of manners? Or was my observation altogether wrong? Was my test group – me, and me alone — too narrow for an accurate sociology experiment?
Garan Smith, 41, lives in Golden Hill. Five years in San Diego, from Michigan.
"There is a very wide lack of eye contact in San Diego. What I see overall is a general fear, especially from the women here. They seem reticent toward giving eye contact unless they've scanned you from somewhere far away, and they're able to pretty much size you up and determine either that you're safe, or that you're weak and she can take you, or whether there might be some interest on her part.
"It's very different between here and Michigan. In San Diego, being a tourist town, most people get to pretend that they're not going through the nitty-gritty aspects of life. In Michigan, in general, you're talking about people who are socially and economically a little further down the ladder, and those types of people are more keen to look right into your eyes. They are accustomed to dealing with a more contrasting situation, and that gives them greater character. The lack of the ability to look into another person's eyes has a lot to do with your lack of strength, your own lack of virtue or confidence. San Diego doesn't have that many contrasts of age, color, socioeconomic class, and, say, not even the contrast of seasonal living -- living with those types of contrasts is the thing that gives you character. Getting used to those contrasts can give you a sense that you can embrace the world about you and, in doing so, embrace people from eye to eye."
Danielle Berkley, 31, lives in Hillcrest. Two years in San Diego, from New Jersey.
"It's relaxed here. There's a certain mellowness that's absent from any city back East. That hustle and bustle. But I think on the East Coast you're bred to respect people and shake hands. You look people in the eye, and you talk to them. You don't know how many people I meet out here who comment that I have such a strong handshake. Men say that to me. And I'm, like, 'Well, you should have a stronger handshake, man.'
"But it's funny out here. If a guy's looking all over the place, and he's kind of looking at me, too, and then he's going to wait for me to look back at him, to see if I'm interested, then it's such a stupid game we have to play. It's really not like that back East. People will just walk up to you if they want to talk to you.
"So I have this whole hypothesis about it.
"I've met a lot of people who were born and raised here. And most of them have never left here. And that's really interesting to me. I'm not saying this isn't a great life, but there's a whole world that I would like to go see. So these people live in this paradise here, but it's an illusion. And it all has to do with the weather. You don't have to adjust to something greater than yourself, like, four times a year, like you did with the seasons back on the East Coast. Here, you can be as narcissistic as you want, because the weather's always consistent. The people take care of themselves and think about themselves more, and they don't have to acclimate, literally, to anything greater than themselves. And everybody looks really great here, but that's kind of the problem. So there's all this self-absorption and arrogance, and then insecurity, too, because are you really as hot as you think you are? And then nobody really looks at anybody. Welcome to San Diego!"
Acacia Collins, 19, lives in City Heights. Grew up in San Diego.
"I've noticed that people in general don't really look you in the eye in San Diego. I really notice it in a customer-service situation, because I work in retail, and I'm supposed to make eye contact with the customer and establish that connection, but it's really hard to do sometimes. People will kind of fiddle with something and get all nervous and not look at you. I mean, I've been to Canada, and people are really friendly there, and it seemed like, compared to here, up in Vancouver, everyone looked you in the eye.
"Something else I've noticed is you have to dress the part in San Diego -- you have to wear the uniform. Otherwise, people treat you differently. There are so many scenes here. That's just kind of the thing, like, 'What's your scene,' you know?
"If you go to the beach, and you're totally dressed like you're going to Fashion Valley -- like Cheesecake Factory, with your blond hair all styled, and perfectly manicured, and pink and light blue -- people aren't really going to give you the eye-contact thing. They're just kind of, like, 'What are they doing here?' You know? But when I come out with my ripped jeans and my old T-shirt and my hair's all messy and I'm in my flip-flops, I think people on the beach are more likely to feel comfortable approaching me.
"I mean, a really good example was when I went to a Gwar show downtown -- they're like heavy metal with puppets, and they spray the crowd with blood -- and I was dressed in really cute tight jeans and a white tank top, and everyone else there was dressed in black with studs and piercings. So I was like the blond person in the white shirt, and everyone else was looking at me like, 'Huh?' So I was a little bit less comfortable making eye contact with these people, because the situation was intimidating. I was different from everyone else.
"I've noticed the guys in San Diego seem a little intimidated, too. I don't know if they think the girls are out of their league or what. But sometimes I'll make eye contact with a guy, and you know he's checking you out, but he won't come up to initiate conversation. It's really weird. Even if you maintain eye contact for a couple of seconds, and it keeps happening, that person won't even come up and initiate conversation with you. And that's weird. Maybe I'm intimidating to them. I don't know."
Sandie Zuniga, 25, lives in Bonita. From San Diego, just moved back from Michigan after going away to college.
"Usually, I say, 'Hi,' and I smile as people go by. I think it's normal to make some friendly acknowledgment. But in certain other settings, it might be different. If I thought a guy was checking me out, and I wasn't really interested, then I probably would avoid looking back at him. Or like now -- I'm sitting here studying, and I'm more involved in what I'm doing, so I might be less receptive to eye contact.
"But I would say that most people around here are generally pretty friendly. If you're walking down the street or standing in line or doing something in an open social situation, people will smile back, and you can have that moment of 'Hey, what's up' and acknowledging each other.
"So I do generally smile and acknowledge people who walk by, although I certainly don't go around checking people out and doing the whole 'Hey, smile, checking you out' thing. I think if a guy is blatantly checking me out and doing it in a way that's not just friendly and considerate, then I would be a little more standoffish. And I would say, in general, if I'm in a situation where I don't want to be hit on, then I'm not going to be as inviting."
Marylin Haidri, 21, lives in Hillcrest. Three years in San Diego, from Northern California.
"I usually never make eye contact. I'm usually pretty shy. Passing by people in the street, I always look at their knees. I always thought I was unusual because I have so much trouble with eye contact. I've been trying to work on this. I even tell my friends to sit across the table and stare at me and see how I do with it.
"I feel badly that I'm so scared of eye contact, but it's just so intimate. Eyes are very expressive, and I feel that when I look at someone, maybe they can read a little bit of what's going on in my head. It's a scary thing to do.
"I'd be really embarrassed if a guy was looking at me. And I'd only check out a guy if I was pretty sure he wasn't looking back.
"One thing I've noticed about eye contact in San Diego is on the college campuses, no one looks at each other. It's like everyone's in their own little bubble. You're isolated moving through a crowd. You glance, and everyone's staring straight ahead, either over everyone's head or down at their knees like I do. I've been on a lot of campuses around town, and it's more or less the same at all of them."
Michael Marchand, 23, lives in Pacific Beach. Six years in San Diego, from Ukiah, California.
"I might try to establish eye contact with a girl. Depends whether I'm interested in her or not. Probably I'd exchange just general pleasantries, a smile, a nod, a slight wave. Real brief. Just fleeting glances up and down. But never a straight stare-down. For instance, now I'm eating a bagel, and perhaps I'd take a bite and just kind of look around. Take a glance until perhaps the glance is received back in my direction.
"More often than not, I think eye contact is returned. Perhaps not in a provocative sense, but usually just kind of like a pleasant 'hey.' I think people here in San Diego do that, in general. Not as much as where I grew up, but Ukiah was tiny, and everyone knew everybody, so there weren't a lot of random people. But I also lived in Spain for a year, and I would say San Diegans are generally more pleasant when it comes to general niceties such as just saying, 'Hey, what's up.' More than Europeans, and I lived in San Francisco for a year, too, and I'd say more than San Francisco as well. San Diego just seems to be a little warmer than the Bay Area or Madrid.
"But I've also been privy to being ignored or not looked at by girls in this town, although I can't say that I've been damaged by it, but I'm definitely aware of it. And it makes you feel a little slighted, like, what's the problem with just being friendly? If I don't know someone, then I try to be as cordial as I can be, as a rule. I do feel that I'm more apt to be friendly and responsive to slight gestures than others are, and it kind of bugs me. I've seen a lot of that 'committed/not-responding' stuff, and it makes me wonder. I like people, but it seems a lot of people don't, and they prefer isolation, which is an attitude I'm not used to."
Megan Donahue, 25, lives in La Jolla. Two years in San Diego, from Santa Barbara.
"If a guy's checking me out, I usually won't look back at him. I mean, it depends. Is he staring? If he's staring, I might look over at him a few times. But it depends on who I'm with, it depends on who he is, what he looks like, whether or not I'm attracted to him, whether or not he seems creepy. Mostly, I guess it depends on how safe I feel in the situation. Because if you make eye contact with somebody, it's like sending them a signal, like you're interested in talking with them.
"In Europe, if you make eye contact with somebody, or if you smile as you pass them on the street, they think you're crazy. Normally when I'm out for a run or something, if I pass somebody, I'll try to make eye contact and maybe smile or just be, like, 'Hi, how's it going,' you know, just something casual. But in Europe, they respond very differently than they do here. And I noticed that mostly in the big cities, like Prague and Bernau.
"But people in San Diego are friendlier, I think. They'll say, 'Good morning,' or 'How's it going.' I think people here return eye contact, in general.
"I lived in New York for a while, and my impression was that people there are far less likely to look you in the eye or be friendly. And I think a lot of it is, in small towns or small communities with more of a communal feel, people are more likely to be friendly to strangers, and make eye contact, and strike up a conversation with someone they don't know. Whereas in New York people are very focused on what they have to do. Because you pass so many people every day, you kind of have to make your own way through everything. So they're very focused on what they're doing and less likely to take a moment and talk to someone. So I think there's more of a correlation between eye contact in large cities versus small towns than there is with East Coast versus West Coast."
Regan Lau, 26, lives in Pacific Beach. Two years in San Diego, from Long Island, New York.
"I'd probably glance back at a guy who's looking at me, kind of to let him know that I know that he's looking at me, and then I probably wouldn't think about it again. If we make eye contact, I'd probably have more of a curious look on my face, and I'd try to see if he looked angry or happy, or cute, I guess. But it depends on my situation. For example, right now I'm in this café to just eat a salad and go. I'm not looking to meet anyone. In a bar, it's different. It's more of a social setting. I'm out there to talk to people and meet people. I might even initiate eye contact in that situation.
"But I feel like I always look at people and give them a smile. I feel like sometimes in grocery stores, or wherever, I'm just constantly looking at everybody who passes by and I'm doing the smile. And sometimes I laugh at myself after every single time I do it, because I'm just constantly doing it. Smiling and glancing. And I think most of the time people are receptive to it. Mostly older people are more receptive, I guess. Usually younger women are the least receptive. Maybe they're just more self-conscious, thinking I'm looking at them for a different reason than I am.
"But I guess I can be less receptive in certain situations, too. If someone's face doesn't have an expression, and they're just looking at me as we're walking by, and they're not smiling or looking overly welcoming, then I can be, like, 'What was that?' Because it's more up for interpretation."
Sara Nguyen, 29, lives in Pacific Beach, and grew up in San Diego.
"If someone's looking at me, then before I look back at them -- before I look them in the eye -- I try to get a sense of what the look is like. If they're leering, then I'm not going to talk to that person. But if they have a nice demeanor, a nice energy about them, then maybe they're just interested in your culture, or your necklace, or what you're wearing. I travel a lot, so I'll be wearing things that are different, so I can see why people are looking sometimes. But I don't automatically think, 'Oh, they want to sleep with me.'
"I usually return eye contact to let the person know that I know they're looking. I don't want to be a bitch about it.
"But I've noticed that a lot of girls in this area, in Pacific Beach, don't return eye contact. I think it's because of the culture of PB. The people that live here are younger -- more college students -- and a lot of the time younger girls don't want to be hit on. When, in reality, sometimes, people just want to be friendly. They want to talk to you and have a conversation. So it really depends, I think, on where a girl is in her life stage, whether she wants to interact with someone who's looking at her. I'm seeing a lot more families in PB, but the scene is very much drinking, young, don't bother me, I'm here to have fun, if you're not hot I don't want to talk to you -- that kind of atmosphere.
"Most people from my culture, from Vietnam, don't hold eye contact. It would be considered disrespectful to do that. I think living here and being from another culture, I really have acculturated to this society. I wouldn't say I've conformed.
"I really assess each situation on an individual basis. I don't do anything just because. Like, for example, you walked out here, gave me eye contact, and I gave you the eye contact back. Not because I was interested, or you were interested, or whatever -- it was because I was acknowledging you. It was a sign of respecting you, and you looking, period.
"I have to admit that I don't really look at a lot of the younger guys. It's really the energy that they put out. If you're a guy that's a showoff and looks arrogant, I'm not going to want to even look at you. I mean, I'd rather have a conversation with a nice guy who's funny versus somebody who's hot. I went through a phase when I was younger where I was going to clubs a lot, only looking at certain guys, and really being a bitch sometimes, too. You know, getting free drinks as much as I could. But again, that's a phase. You go through it, and then you're done with it. And you learn from it. You learn that not everybody wants to sleep with you. I mean, you're not that hot all the time. People aren't that interested in you all the time. You know? It's better to be humble and take people at their face value and just see them the way they are."
Aurora Sanchez, 23, lives in National City. Twelve years in San Diego, grew up in Tijuana.
"In general, people get sometimes intimidated when people make eye contact. Like myself, I might get a little neurotic or paranoid if somebody makes eye contact with me, just because it forces me to look at the other person, and I wonder what they want.
"Although I think people in San Diego do make eye contact because they're friendly and they want to meet people. But in Tijuana, where I'm from, it's more like, 'Why are you looking at me?' Almost like a judgmental thing.
"I've changed since I've been here, though, and I don't mind eye contact as much. I try to smile at people when we look at each other. I try to be friendly. Because I think San Diego is a pretty friendly place."
Tiffany Jobbagy, 23, lives in Chula Vista. Five months in San Diego, grew up in Connecticut.
"I go by first impressions a lot, so if someone's looking at me, and it seems like some weird guy who I feel uncomfortable about, then I won't give eye contact. Or, if I feel like a guy is looking at me just to pick me up, and he's looking at me for the wrong intentions, then I don't return eye contact. I return eye contact mostly when I think someone else's look has good intentions. If someone's just saying 'hi' and being nice, then I'll return eye contact back. But if it's for the wrong reasons, then I avoid it.
"For the most part, I think eye contact is important, and it says a lot about who you are as a person. And I think that people who have good communication skills have good eye contact, because they're secure.
"I do find that there are times when you can sense somebody's security right away just based on the way that they approach you, based on the way they interact with you. And I do find that there are times when I'll have a conversation with somebody, and you can tell that they're uncomfortable because they won't look at you. But I wouldn't say that I've noticed any eye-contact trend in San Diego versus New England.
"I don't check out guys. I'm old school that way, old-fashioned. I guess I wait for the guys to check me out, if they're going to. The guys who do give me eye contact, or who give me that little glimmer of, like, 'I'm interested,' I most of the time don't return it back, because I get bad vibes easily. I think I might come off as arrogant or bitchy, but it's because I'm a to-myself, mind-my-business type of person. But if I'm approached and someone interacts with me, then I'm good. I'm good to go. I'm open to that. But I think initially people might get the wrong vibe from me."
Chi Essary, 31, lives in University Heights. Four years in San Diego, grew up in Oregon.
"It's a little more feminist in Oregon, where I'm from. The feminism is really kind of in-your-face. So the men were even less likely to make eye contact with you there than they are here. When I came here, I was, like, 'Wow, the men will actually talk to you and make eye contact.' Because the thing was, the women could be very rude to men up in Oregon. Very rude. It was like it was an affront to women to approach them. You had to be careful to treat them like complete equals. So if you approached a woman, then it was a sexual thing, and you were a male chauvinist pig. Or something like that. I never really agreed with much of that. But I saw a lot of it.
"Like, one time, at Reed College, which is this bastion of extreme feminism, these two guys were walking out of the student union, and one of the guys held the door open for this girl, and she called him a rapist. Can you believe that? So I kind of grew up in an area where you weren't supposed to acknowledge that a woman was a woman and a man was a man, and by being flirtatious and approaching a woman, you were being the dominant one, and it had to all happen more organically. And when I talked about that with my girlfriends, they would say that it was so hard to actually meet a guy, because it couldn't look like he was trying to come on to you at all. You could only meet through friends or accidents.
"So here, in San Diego, it's a lot more laid back than that. But I'm shy, in general. So when a guy tries to make eye contact with me, I look down. So then of course he's not going to come talk to me because I look down. And my friends always tease me about that."
Richard Essary, 30, lives in Pacific Beach. Six years in San Diego, grew up in Oregon.
"I think a woman will size a man up, and a man will size a woman up, for their other features -- for their economic features, their biological features -- before they will allow themselves to make eye contact. I know I do. And it might take less than half a second, that first glance. You take in the whole organism, and then, if you approve, your lower brain stem's going to tell you, 'Look away,' or it's going to tell you, 'Keep your eyes there.'
"But after that moment, after I establish eye contact, I think I become more the exception than the rule in San Diego, because I lived in Brazil for over two years, and in Brazil, a man has to be a lot more aggressive than he necessarily does in California. In Brazil, if a woman makes eye contact with a man, it's a lot more of a signal than if a woman does the same thing in California. In Brazil, she's telling you to come over here and talk to me right now, or else you're going to lose me because your friend is sitting right next to you. So, if I get eye contact, and I'm interested, the first thing I'll do is head over there out of good old-fashioned Darwinist survival. And I still do that here in San Diego, which is often one of the reasons why I end up with girlfriends from other places."
Natasha Vayner, 25, lives in Normal Heights. Seven years in San Diego, grew up in Lithuania.
"I've always thought it was just part of American culture not to make eye contact. I think people in the Russian-speaking world, in general, make more eye contact.
"Actually, I really realized how little eye contact there is here after I went to Argentina. I do tango dancing, and that's why I went there. In Argentina, there's this custom that you don't walk up to someone and ask them to dance. If you walk up and ask them, they will say, 'No,' even if they want to dance with you. Because the way it's done -- I guess to protect the very fragile male ego -- is that a man and a woman make eye contact, all the way from across the room, and the man will initiate the eye contact, and if the woman looks straight at him for over two seconds or so, and the man nods, that means they've accepted each other's dance. And, for the first week I was there, I didn't have one dance. Because, for one thing, it was very difficult for me to just look right into a stranger's eyes like that. And I didn't realize how little eye contact we have here -- even though I thought that I look at people when I talk to them -- but I didn't realize how uncomfortable I've become with eye contact just from living in this culture.
"So since I've come back here, I've really noticed how shy everyone seems. I also lived in the International House on the UCSD campus, and I picked up the habit of looking people in the eye from the international students. The international students look people in the eye a lot more when they talk.
"There's a funny phrase you have here, in this country, which is something I never heard while growing up in Lithuania. You say, 'It's rude to stare.' And I think people carry that into their adult life."
Lawrence Adams, 38, lives in Hillcrest. Five years in San Diego, from Miami, Florida.
"I think I do look people in the eye. I think I look more people in the eye more often than most people will look back at me. But I'm from back East. I lived in Miami a long time, but I'm originally from DC, so I think it's maybe more of a city thing, where people kind of acknowledge you and keep moving. But I haven't really noticed too much of that out here.
"In fact, it's funny -- I was just talking about this a few weeks ago with a friend of mine. It seems to me that people out here are easily intimidated. Now, I'm coming from the perspective where I'm from even bigger cities than this one, and I'm used to seeing a lot of people on the street, and I'm not really afraid of the guy walking by me. But out here, I think it's a little different.
"A funny example was in '04, World Series time, in PB Bar and Grill, with a friend of mine -- you know, BoSox playing the Cardinals, and I'm a BoSox fan -- and I said something and a guy overheard me, and he said, 'Oh, you guys are from the East Coast,' and I turned around and I said, 'Yeah!' And I didn't know how loud I was talking, but this guy just kind of reeled back, and I felt almost like I had to apologize to him. And it kind of works to my detriment, because I often don't notice that I'm offending people out here, even when I'm just talking and being myself. But then when I pick up on it on occasion, you know, when I get that feeling, then I catch myself restraining myself, and all the while I'm thinking, 'What the hell am I doing this for?' You know, it's not like I hit somebody. Maybe I barely said something offensive. But folks in this town seem to take offense real easily. And that carries over into the lack of eye contact, too, of course. The folks here seem to be intimidated by some really silly-ass things."
Leslie Burkholder, 27, lives in North Park. Two years in San Diego, from Iowa.
"I've noticed that I've actually stopped looking people in the eye as much since I moved out here from Iowa. I think people out here are more preoccupied with themselves versus thinking about other people.
"But I think it's more small place versus big place than San Diego versus Iowa. There's just so many people here, I think you'd wear yourself out by acknowledging everybody. Here in San Diego -- and I guess it's true in any bigger city -- you have less opportunity to build a community. I think you'll see better eye contact in places like a church, or in your workplace, but in general, in the city, there's just too many people, and it's not a real community feeling. I think with so many people, it's kind of hard to keep up your old habits of talking to everybody. I think I'm still pretty friendly, but I'm starting to lose that a little bit, living in a big place."
Karina Frost, 18, lives in Chula Vista. Grew up in San Diego.
"I think people, over the years, have just gotten less and less friendly. They're afraid to show even the slightest interest or recognition. Maybe it's just because I'm a young adult now, and when I was a kid, people weren't as afraid to look me in the eye. Or maybe it's because I look a certain way now. I mean, I used to have my septum pierced, and people wouldn't really look at me. I dressed the same, but I had a ring right in the center of my nose, and people seemed really put off by that. I'd see them kind of stare, and then they'd talk to me differently -- not so friendly, not so direct.
"But I don't feel awkward with eye contact the way a lot of people seem to. I like to acknowledge people, like, 'Oh, that person's alive. Hello.' You know, I take the trolley every day, so I look at strangers and talk to strangers a lot, and I don't have any problem with it. Even today, there was a man walking around at the trolley station with a petition, and people were shrugging him off. But when he looked at me, I looked at him and smiled. And then he asked me to sign it, and I did.
"But maybe I have a lot more patience with people because I'm so young. Maybe I'll get over that as I get older, but I hope I'm always friendly and patient with people I don't know, people who want to make a human connection."