How To Make Eye Contact, with Negin Farsad
Comedian Negin Farsad (Fake The Nation, TEDFellow) is motivated by her interactions with her one-year-old to form a new habit of looking strangers in the eye and being more open to the opportunities for human connection that are all around her. “You know, the practice of making eye contact is just one manifestation of basically the bigger thing that I’m after, which is human connection.”
[01:02] Hi, I’m Negin Farsad, and this is Good Kids. So I had a goal for 2020, which was to make more eye contact with people. Generally most everybody, but also I think people that I’ve maybe subconsciously been trying to avoid eye contact with. Sometimes I think I’m unconsciously not making eye contact with people like you who work at, you know, the bodega, you know, the drugstore. You know, people who are involved in the various service tasks that you kind of come upon in your daily life. And I don’t think I was maliciously trying to avoid eye contact with any of these people, I just think it sort of happened over time in a way that I just sort of noticed, and I wanted to kind of correct that. It made me sad that I wasn’t making eye contact with everybody.
[01:59] Eye contact can be so weird and interesting. I have an acting coach, and I take these classes with her just to keep things brushed up. She sometimes has us do this exercise where we have to partner up and just stare into another actor’s eyes for like long minutes. And if you’ve never stared into a coworker’s eyes, or stared into a neighbour’s eyes, you probably have not stared into your friend’s eyes like probably ever, you know, if you really think about it. This would be such a fantastic challenge as to just stare at a friend’s eyes for like two full minutes. And she has us do these things where we try and communicate with our eyes. You know, this is an acting exercise, right? In the beginning, I wanted to crawl out of my body. It was so traumatizing to just look at someone’s eyes. I can’t tell you how interesting and complicated and uncomfortable it is. And I can’t tell you how frequently people cry doing it because it’s vulnerable, because it’s the window to our soul, you know? And so you’re like, oh, my God, are you learning so much about me right now just because you’re staring at me?
[03:18] I’m so embarrassed by everything you glean by just looking at me deeply. So my baby’s one and I’m really soaking in that kind of eye contact you can have with a baby because they won’t break eye contact, they’re not uncomfortable. They will just like, hold your gaze. And I’m really cherishing that right now because I’m sure it’s going to change. I’m sure she’s gonna be embarrassed by me or whatever in no time. But right now, I like to just really stare at her and learn everything about her.
[03:57] And I think my little personal challenge has really been about making eye contact with strangers. I definitely wanted to like to engage with people as they come and not to ignore any type of person. So that’s something I hope to instill in her is like we love everybody and we want to meet everybody. And everyone who comes our way is like, you know, a possible new friend or a neighbor or an acquaintance or just someone in the neighborhood, a community member. And we’re grateful for them. You know, I want her to feel that way about people.
[04:32] There’s just so many amazing things out there that just, you know, see and touch and feel that I want her to have that. Oh, my God. You know, it’s so interesting how a little habit like that becomes so ingrained and so difficult to move, it feels like it’s second nature now to like not look and now to force myself to look, I’m just constantly reminding myself, trying to build this new habit of keeping my head high. And, you know, and it comes with a lot of other rules that I’ve sort of developed around that, which in general I’m just trying to be like more present and more interested in other human beings. But I think, like for so many of us, where eye contact is actually like you kind of are surprised to feel seen. You’re kind of surprised that someone is even acknowledging you. And that’s happened to me. You know, where someone has just been like, hey, that’s a nice dress or something like on a subway or whatever. Not in a creepy way. Like a woman, you know, saying something about a coat I’m wearing and she just like, looks me in the eyes. And I feel like I can go on a compliment like that for a week. I mean, that someone even noticed that I was that I existed. You know? Wow, that’s amazing. You know, the practice of making eye contact is just one manifestation of basically the bigger thing that I am after, which is human connection.
[06:20] One of my little rules now is to not check my phone while I’m in transit. So I’m just like nothing interesting is happening on my phone. I’m 99 percent sure nothing interesting is happening on my phone in the distance from my apartment to, you know, these recording studios I’m at, right. So like one of my little rules is like, don’t look at your phone when you’re in transit. What could possibly happen in those 20 minutes? And if something really extraordinary does happen, you’ll find out about it when you reach your destination. I just want to be able to see and hear, you know, I love eavesdropping on people’s conversations. You know, I love looking over someone’s shoulder, see what book they’re reading on the subway. I love looking at people’s outfits and their coats and rain and boots and, you know, expressions on their faces. I mean, there’s just so much to look at. I feel like the art of people watching is sort of like lost. And I’m a comedian. Like I’m supposed to look and I’m supposed to judge and hilarity should ensue. Right. So I worry that there won’t be stand up comedy in the future because nobody will be looking at each other.
[09:47] Everyone has social anxiety. If you’re a regular human being, you just have some measure of social anxiety. And I think in every micro-interaction, people let their social anxiety kind of take over. There’s studies about this. There’s literally studies that if you have some garbage conversation about the weather, like it’s looking great out there today. I know. Isn’t it nice? Just that is going to increase your good feelings, like your serotonin, your whatever. They’ve actually done studies where they’ve like had people go on subways and have a dumb conversation or go on a walk and have a dumb conversation. And it does make you feel better. So your social anxiety is immediately surmounted by good feelings. And so I think, you know, it’s good to remember that. And I realized in some instances, especially when I was buying something. So I would just step into a store to buy a quick pack of gum or whatever.
[10:45] And I realized I was just in such a hurry that I would just sort of do the entire thing with my head down, which is, I think also how most of us sort of live our lives because we’re looking at our phones or whatever. Our heads are just sort of down. So I think it’s just like phone behavior spilled over into real life. And I sort of realized it really clearly when it came to, you know, you’re paying for something and across the counter as a human being and you’re not looking at them. And to walk away from an exchange like that and not even know what it is the person looked like, you know. And I just started feeling really, really weird and bad about that.
[11:25] And then I noticed that I wasn’t actually looking at homeless people. And I think, you know, when you’re a pedestrian in New York City and — you know, I don’t have a car. So I’m on my feet in transit all the time and I see a lot of homeless people. And I think, you know, when you’re in a driving city, you may not even notice or, you know, you speed by so fast. But when you’re on your feet, like you notice they’re a person. And I think one of the things that I’ve read about and that I’ve heard about from the homeless community is that people don’t really just regard them. There’s no paying attention to them as people just with simple eye contact, you know. And that started to make me feel really upset. Like, I was like, I think I’m doing this. I think I’m just like walking by actual human beings and they might be panhandling and that’s maybe something I don’t want to engage in. Maybe I don’t want to give them money that day. Or sometimes I would give people money but not make eye contact, you know? And then I was like, well, that’s also weird.
[12:29] And so it’s just like behavior — I just thought that it was rude and just not friendly behavior. I mean, I think there’s so much going on in those milliseconds that you’re kind of passing by someone who’s homeless. I think what’s going on is some days I’ll give like a dollar to each homeless person I see. Other days I don’t have any money in my wallet and I just have to keep going. And I feel horrible because I’m like, I should be able to give some money. And other days I’m like, well, I can’t give money to every homeless person. That’s not efficient. I should give it to an organization who deals with homelessness. So I have so I have a thousand conflicting thoughts where the guilt kind of works itself up in me.
[13:16] It kind of ends up forcing me to turn my head away. And I think whether or not you’re having those kind of moral conversations with yourself about whether or not I should give a dollar to the person, or if the dollar’s better spent giving it to an organization or whatever. Either way, you should still look at the person who’s asking you for something. It’s OK if you say no, but still, look at the person who’s asking for something.
[13:48] I do feel like we live this busy life and everything is overly scheduled. And, you know, just everything about your week is just so utterly predetermined that sometimes it’s hard to remember that it’s like, oh, yeah, my husband I totally love him and I think he’s great. Like, maybe I should just give him a nice look, you know, and it’s definitely something I want to do more of.
[14:20] So you can catch my podcast, Fake the Nation, every week. It’s a roundtable political comedy podcast, where me and a cast of comedians kvetch about the news and politics. It’s super fun. You can also catch my book, How to Make White People Laugh, which is available wherever books are sold. You can also catch me on Twitter and on Instagram @NeginFarsad, a name that is both easy to pronounce and spell.
[14:45] Good Kids is a production of Lemonada Media. It’s produced and edited by Andrew Stephen. Our executive producer is Stephanie Wittels Wachs and our music is by Dan Milad. Ad sales and distribution are by Westwood One. You can find out more about Lemonada online @LemonadaMedia. If you liked what you heard share, rate, review, say great things about us.