I’d been here just six months back in mid-2003, but that was six months longer than my friend Rod. I’d known him since we were nine-year old kids making mischief in the bush that was our fledgling suburb on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth. Bluewater Bay was blessed with only about ten house, dirt roads, wind-up party-line phones, virgin bush teaming with buck, meerkat and boomslang. All the local kids had to travel by bus to town to our various schools each day, so we got to know each other pretty well. Best of all were the early morning beach break surfing sessions we could enjoy most days in summer. In that environment, it was just natural to greet everyone with a smile. I guess that’s why when Rod first came to Brisbane to begin his personal voyage of discovery within Australia, he uttered these words, ‘Dave, there’s something strange about this place! They don’t make eye contact’. I told him it was probably because he wasn’t dressed in a black suit and his standard greeting was ‘Howzit’ instead of ‘Good-day mate’!
I was reminded of Rod’s observation just last week when I attended a meeting at a business situated just off Queen Street. After the meeting, two colleagues and I were quite pleased with the proceedings so decided to take a seat in the mall and just ‘chill’ for a while. While we chatted calmly amid the hustle and bustle of a mid-week city rush hour, I casually mentioned what Rod had discovered some six years ago. Being academically minded, we decided to test his hypothesis. Sure enough it was true. For a whole hour, not a single person made eye contact with any of the three of us, nor ostensibly with each other. Wow!
‘A sad commentary on city life’, I ventured. My colleagues agreed unanimously.
I could have understood it if I had been in a country where they can’t speak my language, they don’t like my clothes sense, or there is some political system that has outlawed human interaction, but really... Brisbane! (I was wearing the black suit and pride myself on having already mastered the informal greeting).
Wasn’t it here that they successfully staged a world expo in 1986? Perhaps that was the last time they felt they had to be nice to people. I decided to put the same theory to the test on the Gold Coast and found it to be only 40% true. Well I still think that’s sad, so I have been exploring reasons why city dwellers would be reluctant to make eye contact and have come up with a few thoughts of my own:
1. There is a law in economics that might portend. Known as the law of commons, it states simply that when something is shared by a few people they all want it. In a practical sense it explains why, in cases of scarce resources, demand exceeds supply. Then there is the law of anti-commons, which states that when a resource is shared by many, no-one wants it. That explains why the supply of non-scarce resources invariably exceeds demand. Notwithstanding the dubious circular logic, imprecise measures, ill-defined dependency of the correlation variables, and lack of testing for moderating variables, these laws seem to make inherent sense to me. Here’s why: I used to live in a townhouse village with twelve units and the communal pool was always full of people. I have since moved to another village with forty three units and a much larger, better swimming pool, but no-one uses it. Except me.
2. Based on the above, I conclude that the utilization of something communal is indirectly proportional to the number of people that might wish to use it. Therefore if everyone desires eye contact, no-one gets it, as in Brisbane; and vice-versa (as in 1960s Bluewater Bay).
3. That being the case, Brisbane’s citizens need to urgently find alternative forms of validation, so that they cease to be dependent upon something they cannot obtain in their city streets. Perhaps they should take a holiday on the Gold Coast, get a breath of fresh air, and take a swim in the warm Pacific Ocean. There’s no better way to feel alive and well this summer. But only come if you’re willing to look someone in the eyes, give them a warm smile, and say ‘Good-day mate’ in your broadest Queensland accent.
Dr. Dave Robinson is Principal Consultant for the Academy of Business Acumen and Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship at Bond University, an entrepreneur, director of companies, consultant to business, author of books and academic research publications, amateur musician, lifelong surfer and award winning poet. Connect with Dave on acumen.DAR@gmail.com