As I walked down a crowded hallway Friday afternoon, I saw a very attractive young woman coming toward me. Our eyes met for what had to have been a fraction of a second, but in that moment, time slowed down and there didn’t seem to be anybody else in the hallway other than the two of us.
Her blue eyes were warm, intelligent and open. In some way that I can’t explain, I knew what she was unconsciously communicating: “I’m interested in you. I’d like to talk with you.”
The moment was gone as quickly as it arrived, and we were going in opposite directions. The encounter left me slightly shaken and wanting to understand what had just happened.
I was inside a very busy large hospital in downtown Birmingham — it was UAB for any local people who are curious — and I was looking for a specific place where some information was supposed to have been posted. The instructions I had been given were very vague, so I had stopped several times to ask for help from employees.
I put the woman out of my mind and continued looking for what I’d come to find. The odds of me ever seeing her again — just a random stranger among thousands in a hospital — were tiny. So I moved on and figured I’d think about it later. I went back to a lounge next to a cafeteria on the second floor, where I’d been told I’d find what I was looking for.
I suddenly saw her standing alone in that lounge. She was looking at her phone, but she glanced at me several times from across the room.
I approached her to ask if she knew where to find what I’d come looking for. She happened to know what I was seeking, so she told me what I needed to know — and she briefly volunteered a little bit about herself. And then I moved on.
We hadn’t talked for more than 90 seconds at the most, but I knew she wanted to continue talking.
How did I know that? I have no idea. The rational part of my brain always kicks in when I encounter such a situation and it says, “You have no reason to think that. You’re just making that up because she’s attractive in an unusual way. She wouldn’t be interested in you.”
I’ll never see this woman again, so I’ll never have a way to test the truth about it, but I’m left wondering again how it is that two people communicate such a basic thing to one another in an instant — without words or consciously understood signals or anything that can be understood as communication.
I could add a lot about the psychological implications of how I react in such situations, but I’m mostly curious about the communication itself. How does it work? Is it biology? Psychology? Or some sense that we’re not even aware of?
And how would human life be different if we were still at a stage of development at which we trusted those signals instead of letting fear or insecurity short-circuit them?
Is it possible that we sometimes misread each other in such situations? Of course. But I think that most of the time when we simply know that something like that has been communicated, we were right about the message.
I want to know how it works — and why our rational brains sometimes learn to ignore whatever that system of communication really is. Maybe I’ll never know.
I’ve experienced many of those brief little encounters in my life — as you certainly have, too — times when I knew a woman was saying, “I’m open to talking to you.” I have memories and stories of noticing interest and being too insecure to follow up on it, because of the voice in my head sneering, “She wouldn’t be interested in someone like you,” even though I have a long history of dating women far too attractive for me.
I’ll never see that woman again. At this point, I’m not sure I could even pick her out of a group of other tall, attractive blonde women. Her image is already fuzzy in my mind.
But I’ll almost certainly see someone like her again — someone whose eyes convey interest without words — and I’ll once again find myself intellectualizing the encounter and doubting what I know I read, instead of trusting my intuition.
I wish I knew how such communication works. Mostly, though, I wish I could trust what I somehow instinctively know when I’m in that moment.