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?