Chances are you never gaze deeply into the eyes of strangers unless you’re trying to get laid. Not so Michael Ellsberg, who organized and promoted the "eye-gazing" singles party I attended recently, where you silently stare into the eyes of ten different strangers for three minutes each.
"Having that connection makes life so much richer," he told me over continental food at an East Village café. A twenty-eight-year old corporate sales manager and salsa dance instructor, Ellsberg has widely spaced, very large blue eyes. He grew up in Berkeley, California, and his use of the C-word— "connection" — betrays his left-coast leanings. Ellsworth went to an elite college and boarding school in the Northeast; most of his party guests work in finance. He says his inspiration for the parties is salsa dancing, where eye contact is an essential part of the heat.
I was invited to Ellsberg’s second party through a friend who writes about spirituality. He had sent a fan letter and party invitation to her website. My friend was convinced that he only invited her to drum up press, and she was right about his media lust. His first party in December was covered by the New York Times and CBS News. Five minutes after I arrived at the second party, a CNN crew shoved a camera in my face and asked what I was hoping to find that night.
"I hope I don’t go cross-eyed," I said. But, in fact, I was genuinely intrigued by the concept. The news reports half-dismissed eye-gazing parties as the newest thing those crazy single kids in New York were doing, but they also acknowledged that the eyes are the window to all those clichés about love. With a few men, I’ve felt instant attraction that became durable chemistry. Maybe it was intuition or pheromones, or maybe it was something in their eyes. Like many people, I believe there’s an element of attraction that defies the logic of dating-service checklists, and the eye-gazing party seemed like it might serve as a shortcut to that something.
Aside from the two television crews, it seemed like any other party in a swanky bar. People stood around with drinks, and their eyes were doing what they usually do at parties: darting around the room, scoping for hotties. I chatted with a couple of strangers and two friends of a friend before the official eye-gazing started. Then we took our positions at candlelit tables, ladies on one side and men on the other. Michael spent a few minutes coaching us on eye-gazing technique (don’t look at both eyes at once or you’ll go cross-eyed) and philosophy (research shows that people who are comfortable with eye contact are more successful in business). Then we did ten- and twenty-second practice gazes before launching into three full minutes of wordless eye contact.
My first gazing partner was one of the friends I’d chatted with at the beginning of the party, which lessened some of the weirdness. I tried to make myself as open to the experience as possible, remembering things I’d learned in yoga classes about softening the breath and drawing attention inward. I felt comfortable, then worried I was getting too comfortable. What if I’m acting like someone who stares at women on the street, I fretted. My friend seemed unfazed. The corners of his eyes crinkled up in a smile.
After the three minutes were over, each man moved one seat to the left. My next gazing partner had olive skin, almond eyes and dark hair — the type that I drool over again and again. He seemed as present and open as I did, his gaze melting into mine. I experienced the magic of a pure and instant connection, and I was sure that he did too. I immediately started planning our first date.
My next partner blinked constantly. I was convinced he was nervous or shy, but he later told me that he had something stuck in his eye. He was followed by a young man with a goatee and piercings who seemed to survey rather than engage with me, his gaze distant and impassive.
My next gazer also didn’t look like my type. Every visual cue — haircut, clothing, even the set of his face — made me doubt we’d connect, but during the eye-gaze he seemed completely open and curious. I tried to let go of my checklists and immerse myself just as sincerely. As I relaxed into his gaze, a floaty sensation washed over me, and I could swear I felt a tiny pencil beam of energy passing between our foreheads. This was the kind of experience that made me come to the party in the first place, the possibility I could access something in his eyes that I’d miss if I paid attention to everything else.
My penultimate gaze was the most fun, and also the most atypical. As soon as our three minutes began, he smirked and took a swig from his beer. I raised an eyebrow and reached for my chewing gum. He squinted at my pack, so I gave him a piece. As he chewed, little muscles along his temples flexed. This was a dance, not a melt, and I made a point of talking to him at the afterparty.
The last guy seemed completely cut off from the experience. His gaze looked flat, remote, slightly derisive. I wanted to shake him and say, "Buck up, is looking at me really that bad?" But after eyeballing nine other women, maybe it was. At the afterparty, my friend Adam (the guy who took my eyeball cherry) told me that after the fifth or sixth gazer he shut down and stopped trying to connect. "I just couldn’t do it anymore," he said.
Talking to others at the afterparty, I found that an eye connection didn’t guarantee any other connection. I hunted down the guy with the bad haircut that I had such a magical gaze with. He was friendly, but in conversation we didn’t click. My attempts at wit fell flat, and the more I talked to him, the more I believed that my first instinct — that he wasn’t my type — was correct. This left me wondering what I saw in his eyes that seemed so compelling.
The tall, dark dreamboat was unreachable. When I spotted him in a group of friends I couldn’t get his attention, and he made no effort to find me. I was left with the ego-busting idea that all I saw in his eyes was my own fantasy, or the confidence of a handsome man who knows women like looking at him.
My most amusing after-party conversation was with Alex, the guy who couldn’t sit still during the eye-gazing session. We immediately got into a debate about the best Turkish bathhouse in town, and he invited me to the tango party he was hosting later that week. The hyper, outgoing personality I saw in his eyes was definitely not a projection. It showed in every word of our conversation. Later, I saw him passing out flyers for his tango parties and working the room, just like he worked my gaze.
By the end of the party, I swapped digits with three of the ten men I gazed with — fidgety Alex, the guy who blinked too much (and who was too shy to call me), and a financial analyst who offered to recommend a new yoga studio to me — and got new business cards from my old friends Allen and Joe. Then I did the opposite of eye gazing: I went home and Googled them all.
If you judge the success of a singles party by the number of new contacts, then the eye-gazing party was a success for me. But I think this says less about the experience of eye-gazing — which didn’t reveal compatibility so much as extroversion — than it does about the nature of speed dating. Like a conventional speed dating party with people yammering canned questions at a queue of applicants, the eye-gazing party was designed to deliver a bevy of options in a short time. It was packaged with romance, but its underlying virtue was efficiency. Case in point: to better serve his guests, Michael is tinkering with the format of his upcoming monthly parties; he’ll be offering fifteen two-minute sessions instead of ten three-minute sessions, so people can have even more options.