There are hundreds of bars packed with singles trying to chat up potential mates in New York City. Recently, in a East Village bar, 32 strangers stared silently into each others eyes.
They were trying to prove grandma's old adage: when you lock eyes, you'll know.
I, however, found it disconcerting. I had never looked at this man before in my life. As I sat gazing into his eyes, I could only rely on the slightest facial expression or shift in body language to gauge what he was thinking. Did that slight smile that flashed across his face mean he is interested? He's fidgeting – does that mean he's nervous? Could he tell I had a boyfriend?
Looking across the candlelit table in the warm, red room with a painting of nudes drinking wine behind us, I wondered why he came here tonight. What was he looking for?
I won't ever know, because I never said a word to him. I saw him at an "Eye Gazing Party," the newest option for New Yorkers hoping to find that elusive spark without the painful chitchat of numerous bad dates.
It's a lot like speed dating with one catch – no talking is allowed. People split into pairs and look into each others eyes for three minutes; then switch partners and stare again until everyone has gazed into the eyes of about 10 people. Afterwards, there's a party where you can talk to the person who caught your eye.
Eye gazing is the brainchild of Michael Ellsberg, who edits book manuscripts and lives in New York. As a single guy, Ellsberg was sick of going out to bars and hearing permutations of the same conversations: Where are you from? What do you do? Do you like New York?
"I thought there has to be a better way to connect with people," Ellsberg said.
Having studied salsa, Ellsberg knew the power of eye contact to connect with people on the dance floor; he thought it could apply to dating. Eye gazing was born.
Interested in his idea, I recently attended his inaugural eye gazing party. He had invited seven people and asked them to bring friends, bringing the group to about 30 singles in their 20s and 30s. Well-dressed young professionals, many who worked in finance, trickled in to a bar on the Lower East Side about an hour before the gazing was to start. Ellsberg wanted people to drink to lower their inhibitions and make staring at each other seem less, well, weird.
For me, mingling at a cocktail party is an uncomfortable experience. So the idea of staring at strangers for 30 minutes terrified me. Ellsberg convinced me that I should give it a shot — nothing could be that bad for a half hour.
Albert Pope, who works for an investment bank in Stamford, Conn., had a much better attitude.
"It's stretching a little bit socially, but you might meet interesting people," he said before the gazing started. "It attracts people confident enough to be looked at and look at someone."
Linda Minami, an administrative partner in a finance firm, was a little nervous; but she said checking out the crowd beforehand helped.
"I was expecting enormous pools of eyes and to get caught in some Svengali stare," she said. "But it'll be completely safe. You've got your clothes on and you're vertical."