Last weekend, we were driving our minivan home through the Appalachian mountains with the kids. It had been a long day in the van, and fast food was the plan for dinner. We couldn’t agree on one restaurant, so we chose both Taco Bell and McDonald’s, the best options at that highway exit.
At the Taco Bell drive-thru, a few of us needed a minute to decide.
“Well, take your time and let me know if I can help you with your decision!” came a friendly female voice through the speaker. “I’m happy to answer any questions you all have.”
When we got to the window, a middle-aged, well-put-together woman opened the window and beamed out at us. Her perfectly done autumn eye shadow crinkled as her eyes bent into a smile over her mask. She looked both of us right in the eyes and said, “Thanks so much for stopping in. Ya’ll enjoy your dinner.” As the van pulled away and we started handing out burritos, we joked that we have never felt so cared for in a fast food line.
Then we drove across the parking lot to McDonald’s. This was a standard experience – exactly what we expect from a drive-thru – fast food fast. Pulling up to the first window, an indifferent voice said “$11.80.” A hand appeared through the window to take the cash, and the window closed. At the next window, we heard an apathetic “Thank you” as the employee handed us the food and closed the window without looking our way. I honestly can’t even remember if it was a man or a woman. We laughed about the difference between the two restaurants and concluded that eye contact has to be the baseline for human interaction.
The air is thick with anxiety this week. Can you feel it? We are awaiting election results. We have had so many months of isolation and distance. Face masks are necessary for health and safety, but when we are wearing them, we make less eye contact and it’s harder read each other’s facial expressions.
One way to turn down anxious feelings (our “fight or flight” stress hormone) is with meaningful social interaction, and turning up empathy for others.
A study published last year in eNeuro, explains how eye contact alone prepares the brain to empathize by activating the same areas of each person’s social brain simultaneously.
“Eye contact activates the social brain, the neural regions that orchestrate our responses to other people. Making eye contact signals to another person that you are paying attention…It underlies our ability to recognize and share emotion. In other words, it is critical to our capacity for empathy.”“How Eye Contact Prepares the Brain to Connect” Psychology Today
Is there anything we can do about the anxiety in the air this week? I don’t think there are any short cuts to fixing the deep divide we are feeling. We can cast a vote for a political candidate (and we should). We can post on social media our stance on certain issues and share articles (maybe that does some good). Perhaps those things are the short cut, and the “long cut” is the day to day care of the people we meet.
We, the people, shape our communities. We are the ones who choose to be decent, loving, caring and compassionate. We should prioritize the long cut. Connect with people at every possible opportunity. Fear scatters us, but we can extend ourselves in a generous way. Look people in the eye and make them feel human. Every cashier, co-worker, car wash attendant – look them in the eye and smile. I can feel the affect of this in my own heart when I do this tiny thing, because human connection goes both ways.
Here is something to try:
- With people you know, hold eye contact a little longer and say “It’s so good to see you.”
- With strangers (cashiers, panhandlers, people passing on the sidewalk), make eye contact and smile.
Looking someone in the eye with a smile is such a small, human thing. But don’t underestimate its power. It is yeast. It is a mustard seed. It is small, but not small. Smiles in the Taco Bell drive thru add up.