Berlin and Beyond: Look into my eyes | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 04.05.2018
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Berlin and Beyond: Look into my eyes

When was the last time you looked into the eyes of a stranger? It's not easy, but as Tamsin Walker found out during a stare-off in a city park, it can be beneficial at an individual and societal level.

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WorldLink: Look into my eyes

If there's one moment you can be almost certain Germans will make and hold eye contact, it's when they're raising their glasses. The threatened penance of seven years' bad sex for anyone whose eyes wander off-topic during the prost is feared with enough earnest to see pupils dilate in undisputed attendance.

But that is about where the insistence on ocular intimacy ends. At least here in Berlin, where the ability to precision stare at strangers without actually registering their presence, is one of the things that helps keep the city's reputation for unfriendliness upstanding.

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It would be easy to follow suit, to work on my own steely expression, but I'd rather be subversive and smile at people, such as recently at a happy looking man on an underground platform. Our eyes met, the corners of our lips turned up. Easy.

People stand on the platform at Berlin's Pankow metro station

Public transport presents countless opportunities for eye contact, or for looking the other way

Or not. When the train squeaked in, said man sat next to me. He also got off when I did, followed me across the road, into and around a supermarket. When he suddenly vanished from view, I concluded it had been a string of coincidences. But I was wrong. When I left the shop, there he was, waiting to ask me for a drink. I said no. He said huh? Turns out he'd read my smile over the other side of town as an invitation for his invitation.

For a while after that episode, I smiled less liberally. Big deal, you might say, in a city that doesn't beam at the best of times. But if what we want of a society is for people to feel like they're in it together, it kind of is.

Eye-opening stares

In his book Ihr könnt uns einfach nicht verstehen ("You all just can't understand us") on why East and West Germans talk at cross purposes – published a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall – author and coach Olaf Georg Klein explained how many who'd grown up in the GDR felt their counterparts from the western states were unable to make and maintain a level of eye contact that allowed them to feel they were really communicating.

Tamsin Walker looks into the eyes of a stranger in a park in Berlin

Three minutes of staring is not as easy as it sounds

But the really of sharing a gaze isn't easy. Which accounts for the emergence of eye contact workshops. I went to one in a city park. As I sat on the grass staring as intently as possible into the eyes of a number of people I'd never previously set mine upon, I became aware of the fact that I might be a bit more Berlin in that department than I like to admit.

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Looking at strangers like I meant it was hard. Yet for all the awkwardness of the intimacy, I enjoyed the warmth and simplicity of sharing a moment through smiling eyes.

Bring it on, I say. And I tried to do just that on a train out of town a few days later. The carriage was awash with the usual sea of steely faces, staring past me like I wasn't there. But I eventually noticed one man who seemed game for a moment of silent interaction. Our eyes locked. The corners of our lips turned up. He didn't come and sit next to me, nor did he get off when I did. But he did nod at me and say goodbye. Easy. 

In Berlin and Beyond, British-born Tamsin Walker takes a closer look at some of the quirks and perks of life in Germany, which has been her home for almost 20 years. She tweets as @TamsinkateW

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