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Penkava: Meeting strangers a non-eye contact sport

Published: Tuesday, June 25, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

I like to take walks. In fact, every day I try to take a brisk 2-mile stroll. I weave my way through neighborhoods and shopping districts, my head bobbing with the pace, my arms churning with the rhythm, my legs aching with the distance. I end up more exhausted than invigorated, but my doctor tells me that walking is good for my health, so I’m going to do it even if it kills me.

But, honestly, I do enjoy walking. I feel more in touch with nature on my daily jaunts: the sound of the congested traffic on Route 14, the smell of freshly made doughnuts wafting from Country Donuts, the sight of the garbage cans lined up like soldiers along the streets on pickup day. Yep, nature stuff like that.

But I have noticed something a bit disconcerting during these daily outings. Whenever I meet someone coming the other way on the sidewalk, I usually look for an opportunity to greet them or at least share a smile. But over the years I’ve noticed that this is becoming harder and harder to do. That’s because fewer and fewer people are willing to make eye contact with me.

My wife says that’s because I walk kind of funny and wear a Cubs hat. Well, I tried to change my walking form and stopped flailing my elbows. I also started wearing my John Deere hat, because nothing walks like a Deere. But still the people ignored me. Some would quickly pull out their cellphone and stare at it as we approached. Others suddenly would look at their watch. Then there are the ones who just looked straight ahead and walked by me as if I was a see-through non-elbow-flailing farm implement advocate.

I was starting to think it was really me, but then I read an article, “Keep Your Eyes to Yourself.” It talked about the possibility of a universal trend of greeting strangers with indifference as we pass them by. I wondered whether that trend was happening here in our localities. The only way to find out was to conduct my own field study.

So I grabbed my clipboard, my Cubs and John Deere hats, and I hit the sidewalks to conduct my research. I felt like Woodward and Bernstein in “All the President’s Men,” searching for informants to topple a presidency, except that instead of seeking some juicy disclosures, I was on the lookout for some ocular connections.

I simply walked down the sidewalk, and when people passed me by, I tried to make eye contact with them. If we did, I’d smile or say hello. I walked normally, keeping my elbows close to my body. I wore my Cubs hat for a while and then switched to the John Deere one. I bet you can’t wait to see the results. Well, here they are:

Cubs Hat

People who made eye contact: 1

People who avoided eye contact: 9

John Deere Hat

People who made eye contact:  2

People who avoided eye contact: 8

So there you are. It would seem that, according to my research, if you want the best chance to make eye contact with a stranger, you should wear a John Deere hat and walk around the block. Take that, Woodward and Bernstein.

A further revelation from the results of this investigation is the clear implication that the Cubs have a negative impact upon constructive human interaction, and that if they wore green-and-yellow uniforms and changed their name to “The Chicago Tractors,” then twice as many people would watch them.

I would suggest you conduct your own field study. Perhaps if everyone reading this tried to make eye contact with even one stranger, we could begin to reverse this trend of social indifference and detachment.

So let’s get out there and make this world a friendlier place! Just watch the flailing elbows, please.

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He is currently looking to buy a used John Deere lawn tractor to drive down the sidewalk during his morning walks. He can be reached at mikepenkava@comcast.net.

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