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Looking You in the Eyes

by Pat Hall

César, my very intelligent Mexican friend, told me his pet peeve the other day, "All you Americans and Canadians never make eye contact. We Mexicans always make eye contact. Why don't you look at us?" To emphasize his point, César declared, "If you look up the verb 'to stare' in a Spanish dictionary, you will find that there is no word in Spanish for stare. That's because we all just do it naturally. It's our way of looking at something."

I thought about this and realized that I always look away if a stranger looks at me. I remember my mother saying to me when I was a child, "Don't stare at people. It's not polite." I guess I have always followed that rule, especially where everyone else is looking away and avoiding my glance. It's always been OK to look at someone squarely if you know them, but perish the thought if you look closely at a stranger. Even worse if they notice you looking at them.

It's a strong part of my upbringing and cultural outlook. Still, I decided to throw off, at least temporarily, that part of my cultural biases and try making direct eye contact with total strangers here in San Miguel. It was difficult, but I decided to try it while walking in the streets.

Walking along Calle Hidalgo after my resolution to make eye contact, I saw approaching me a Mexican woman who looked pretty harmless. I gathered all my courage and looked her right in the eyes. She looked at me in surprise and gave me a giant smile. Then she said, "Buenas tardes" and she kept on smiling. I replied in similar fashion. When I sneaked a peek around behind me as we parted, she was turned around looking at me, still smiling happily. Again I smiled back.

I kept looking around as I walked along the street. Soon I was smiling at all the Mexican women I met and exchanging greetings. I was hesitant to make eye contact with Mexican men. Who knew what that might bring?

I asked another Mexican male acquaintance about my making eye contact with Mexican men. He told me, "I'd be careful with that, Pat. They'd probably think that you were flirting with them."

So I went on making eye contact with women. I was having great success with this and I even seemed to be making them feel happy. I soon learned all the many appropriate responses to eye contact: ¡hola! ¿qué tal? ¡chao! ¡buenos días! ¡buenas tardes! ¡buenas noches! ¡feliz noche! ¿cómo está? ¿cómo ha estado? ¿qué pasa? ¡hasta luego! ¡hasta pronto! ¡hasta la próxima! ¡adiós! ¡que le vaya bien! ¡que tenga un buen/lindo/bonito día! ¡que disfrute una buena tarde!¡nos vemos! ¡cuídate! ¡suerte! ¡te veo! ¡bye!

One of the responses that still amazes me as I pass by someone is ¡Adiós! without ever having first said, ¡Hola! At first it seemed to me that they were saying "good-bye", and meaning "get out of my sight!" But no, Adiós is perfectly fine if you are going by a person and not intending to stop and talk.

Speaking with the Mexican French student whom I jokingly call my cultural consultant, I asked him if he made eye contact with females with whom he wasn't acquainted. Miguel said, "Of course. It wouldn't be polite if I didn't. Why do you ask?" I told him about my new habit and told him what my other friend has said about not making eye contact with males. He responded that that was silly. "Everyone makes eye contact with everyone. It's only normal."

So now I make eye contact with everyone, including unknown males. Of course, if the person, male or female, looks questionable or dangerous, I look the other way.

I continued my cultural research on the buses of San Miguel. I had noticed previously that most Mexican woman looked at me when I was walking down the aisle in a bus. They would look up at me, not really smiling or speaking, but looking as if they expected something from me. That had always puzzled me. What were they looking for? I always averted my eyes.

After my great successes on the streets, I tried eye contact on the buses. When I would get up to leave the bus and, I'd see all those upturned faces, searching my face. I tried looking straight into their eyes, and to my surprise, I received glowing, happy smiles. When I smile and say "buenas tardes" on the bus now, I always receive the same back and more, accompanied by radiant smiles. I never get any more questioning stares from people on the bus.

I do receive some surprised glances as I make eye contact. I guess they're not used to foreigners making eye contact.

I've noticed that Mexicans greet everyone in the room when they enter a restaurant or a waiting room. Instead of wondering why this total stranger is speaking to me, I now return their greetings and do the same when I enter a room full of people. I love the custom of wishing everyone in a restaurant "Buen provecho" when you are leaving. It's as if you had been sitting at the table with them and had to leave early. In order to be polite, you excuse yourself and wish them to have a good meal in your absence.

I've also noted that many Mexicans bow when they greet you. It appears to be a deep nod that turns into a bow. I'm working on that one right now


Pat Hall is a retired Canadian who has been visiting San Miguel for the past 21 years. Many years ago Pat worked at the University of the Américas in Cholula, Puebla for three years where she also studied Spanish. In Canada she worked as a language teacher (French, Spanish, German, Latin, and English as a Second Language). The last 10 years of her working life were spent as a translator, translating official documents from Spanish to English and from English to Spanish. She is currently writing a book, Languages Are My Thing: Adventures of a Polyglot, about her adventures traveling and pursuing her passion for languages.

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