New York Drops Its Game Face

By ALEX KUCZYNSKI September 16, 2001

NEW YORKERS have long kept their facial expressions guarded, for safety, privacy or emotional safekeeping. They are masters of the cocktail party grin, the passive subway-rider's gaze, the social smile, the cool stare.

But in the days after two hijacked airplanes reduced the city's soaring symbols of good fortune to ashen rubble, New Yorkers abandoned their game face.

Whether they were sitting in a coffee shop, walking down Fifth

Avenue or riding the F train, they were forced into a kind of emotional nudity, their faces stripped of the shields used in everyday life. There were the measured grimaces; a smile would have seemed too celebratory and gaudy; between a man and a woman crossing paths on Fifth Avenue Wednesday morning, which signaled a mutual understanding: we must support one another, even if all we can offer is a glance of recognition.

There was the man on Madison Avenue, beetle-browed with exhaustion, who without shame sobbed into a cellular phone that seemed too puny an instrument to convey the spectrum of his emotion. He stopped and looked at another man standing in the door of a deli, his eyes straining with a wordless question.

In acts described by psychologists and sociologists as subliminal bonding consistent with wartime, instead of averting gazes when a stranger stood close, many New Yorkers made eye contact. The cultural historian Neal Gabler, who walked Manhattan's streets for three days after Tuesday's attack, said that New Yorkers have always cultivated the blank face. "It is an immunity mechanism, an emotional tax that you pay when you live in New York City," he said. "Now, people have left it behind and are looking at each other with a different kind of civility, looking for some kind of contact."

Outside the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue at 26 th Street on Thursday morning, hundreds of people holding signs with photographs of missing people looked into strangers' eyes with a mournful intimacy usually reserved for lovers, parents or siblings. The signs read "Last seen, 102nd floor, 9:15 a.m." or "Have you seen? My dad, 82nd floor."

In Bryant Park on Thursday evening, Mike Shattuck, a college student, caught the eye of a young man who looked, in dress and manner, a lot like him. Both men gave a semi-shrug of the shoulders.

Mr. Shattuck said that he wasn't sure why he had exchanged wordless signals with the passerby, but that it had something to do with seeking a sense of community. "I guess you want people to know you're here," he said. "You can't wear blinders all day in a situation like this."

In times of mourning and shock, human beings drop the social proprieties and their faces convey clearer pictures of their emotions, said Dr. Gordon Bower, a professor of psychology at

Stanford University who studies body language and facial expression.

"When people are put in a common situation of shock and anxiety, they bond or affiliate in a way that signals empathy," he said. "It happens particularly if there is an us-versus- them slant. You look for comfort and connection from the strangers around you."

But there were also other types of looks. As the city's mood grew edgy on Thursday after a rash of bomb threats, Wanda Farrington stood outside her office building on Park Avenue after being evacuated. She had found herself staring with open hostility at strangers. "I think things I am ashamed of," she admitted. "I look at the man with the backpack and think, 'What is he doing here? Why is he following me 60 blocks?' Normally, I close up, but now I just stare at anybody suspicious."

Ira Didner, standing nearby, said: "I notice a lot of blank stares, a lot of uncertainty. But I also see people who look at each other. I think all of us want to feel as if we've been going through something together. You don't meet eyes very often in New York, and now I look into everyone's face."

There are 30 finely tuned muscles in the human face, Dr. Bower said, and through evolution a refinement of the facial structure has created a means of wordlessly communicating many messages. "We are now able to pass on an emotional contagion, where one sad person can through their body and facial language pass on sorrow and grief to hundreds of other people," he said. "It is an empathic, imitative response that even little children have."

Dr. Bower said that people abandon facial and physical pretenses during acts of war, natural disaster or whenever they perceive a constant threat, and that New Yorkers' increased facial openness will last as long as there is danger, real or imagined. "The threat becomes so salient that it is foremost on everyone's mind," he said.

David Givens, an anthropologist and the director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Wash., said that the empathic expression he has seen most often in times of widespread grief is known as lip compression, in which a person rolls in and tenses the lips. Dr. Givens said that President Bush used lip compression during his first television appearances after the attacks.

"It is a very emotional and compassionate signal with the lips," Dr. Givens said. "We know when you combine it with a little eye contact, person to person, it is a bonding thing that says, 'We have both experienced this horrible, horrible thing together.' It is untrained, and nobody teaches it in school. These days, the only facial expression you are taught is to smile for the camera."

The lip compression activates specific centers in the brain, Dr. Givens said, which have the effect of comforting the person seeing the expression, and the person making it. Even in Spokane, Dr. Givens has noticed drivers displaying more courtesy on the road. "It is as if to say, 'We're all in this together, and I'm not going to compete with you on this day,'" he said.

Herbert Gans, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, said he has noticed more signs of consideration on New York streets. "It can be a look, a meeting of the eyes, that says, 'Here, I'll let you pass, I won't step in front of you or be impolite today,'" he said.

Mr. Gabler said that he has never thought of New York as a geographical place, but as a zone of shared body language, which can register isolation or compassion with equal force. "New York is a city of no contact, where you don't even know your neighbor and every man is an island," he said. "And suddenly, we find ourselves all together on that island."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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