Friday, 10 August 2012

The Averted Gaze of the English

A short while ago an American journalist asked me what I thought of the "averted gaze" of the English. I was unaware that there was actually a name for this strange phenomenom, but, a foreigner in England myself, I had indeed noticed that there is a tendency among English people to not look you in the face when you meet them on the street even if they have met you lots of times before. People who must know you don't acknowledge your existence in any way. Instead of giving you a friendly nod, they look sideways and thereby treat you as if they had never seen you before. I've noticed that especially with the theologians with which I share a corridor at my university. Some of them I've known for almost ten years, and I see them at least once or twice a week, but when we pass each other on the corridor I in vain seek their gaze to greet them. They just pass me, unsmiling, unnnodding, looking sideways. It used to annoy me quite a lot because I thought it was very rude and somehow dismissive. But why do we (unless we are English) seek the gaze of the other in the first place? It seems to me that by doing so we acknowledge the existence of the other and at the same time experience our own existence as being acknowledged by them. It's like saying "I know you are there, and I am willing to be there for you." By averting one's gaze one avoids making this initial commitment. One refuses the first step of communication, perhaps in order not be drawn into something, such as a conversation, which would require time and effort. So the chance to talk to someone else, to reveal one's thoughts, feelings, and "soul" to them, is not seen as an opportunity, but a dangerous, risky enterprise, which had better be avoided. I recall that in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings there is a saying that is alluded to especially at the beginning, I can't remember the exact wording, but something to the effect that once you have crossed the boundaries of your village, there is no way to predict where you will end up. This is meant as a warning to young hobbits not to become too adventurous. Perhaps the hobbit can be seen as the paradigmatic Englishman (or -woman): don't look, or you may get involved. The safest thing is not to engage with the world in any way. Each man an island. My home is my castle. It's a defence mechanism. Or perhaps even more pragmatic than that: a strategy to avoid distractions: I'm busy, don't get in my way. Whatever it is, I still find it curious. (It goes without saying that, of course, not all English people are like that. But it's still something you would notice as a foreigner and that you would not find in any other country I know.) Can anyone shed any light on this?

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