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by Dr. Dave Robinson

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

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Posted by Dr. Dave Robinson
15 Feb 2009

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Dave, I read your article with some interest and found it thought provoking.I tend to agree with you, but I believe it is also becoming prevelant in SA. It may be as a result of the intergration of cultures (some believe it's an insult to look someone directly in the eye)or maybe because we just don't trust people we don't really know and our hesitency to be open with others as we're always sub-conscieously asking ourselves "What do they want from me? Society is changing and not always for the better, in SA we are becoming obsessed with safety and security putting up high walls, installing security systems etc. becoming prisoners in our own homes and thereby isolating ourselves from those outside. Do we even really know our neighbours? Whatever the reason may be though there is still no excuse for not looking someone in the eye and greeting them with a smile. It has been said that a smile uses less facial muscles than a frown and imparts far more beenfit to those who both receive and give it.
Rating: 3 / 5
by Martin Leverington on 10 Sep 2009

I'm an Aussie lady that can't get enough of listening to the male South African accent. Sweet honey to the ears and if only I knew where you were from, I would willingly make eye contact. Unfortunately, without knowing, it's often misconstrued - it's led to being followed, groped, having an unwanted passenger in my car, etc. Of course these were Australians. If only there was a way for single South Africans to let us ladies know that you're not the typical Aussie bloke, there'd be no shortage of eye contact I'm sure.
Rating: 5 / 5
by CC on 19 Aug 2009

Hi Dave thank you for the article, i agree fully with you, i think no one smiles here because they have never been given a pat on the back and told "well done" or "you look great" No one feels good about themselves so how can they smile or connect with anyone. The misconnection is evident even in social circles,family relations and school friendhships, it has nothing to do with personal space or being busy.
Rating: 5 / 5
by articles_feedback.ewf on 29 Jul 2009

I am in a job - in Brissie - where I see and greet hundreds of people EVERY day. I could not disagree with you more!!!!! Try smiling when you are outside and enjoy paradise with me...
Rating: 1 / 5
by Niel Rossouw on 06 Jul 2009

Dave, I totally agree and have always advocated that if we have a gift and if it is free to give, we should give willingly and often. A smile and eye contact are 2 such things! A handshake (or hug) is another. Singing, a kiss etc.. you get the idea. These little acts of connection don't actually dip into our finances and precious energy levels or anything. Infact, I really enjoy connecting with other humans. We are essentially the same. We all worry about how we look, we all want to be loved and belong. There is no point bitching about a society that is fragmented, a government that is doing this and doing that if we don't give a little something of ourselves. A little something that doesn't cost a cent and may give someone a thread of hope, and society a well of connection. I enjoyed your article! Sam
Rating: 5 / 5
by Sam Beau Patrick on 28 Mar 2009

Having grown up in Johannesburg, lived in London for 5 years, Melbourne for a year and now in Sydney for the last 6 months I have to disagree with your conclusion. I believe there are 2 main reasons why people who live in big cities avoid eye contact with strangers. 1. To avoid being accosted by hobo's selling the Big Issue/ being guilted into donating to a charity/ dodging peddlers of junk magazines trying to thrust a copy at you and 2. To try to create some personal space in an environment where you are forced to be in close contact with strangers. In western societies we have grown up with our idea of an acceptable personal space 'bubble' but, when we have to use public transport and weave along crowded streets, that space is intruded upon and we therefore ignore strangers in an attempt to re-introduce personal space. In your example of the townhouse complex with fewer people being more social - I believe that if you are not forced to be close to strangers then you seek out interaction meanwhile if you have unwanted intrusions to your personal space then you seek isolation. In a city you are living closer to your neighbours, usually sharing transport, working in a cubicle and coming into contact with hundreds of people every day. It's no wonder we try to draw a line when we can.
Rating: 1 / 5
by Jeanette Baptista on 17 Mar 2009

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