There can be little more irresistible than the sight of a baby staring into ones eyes and smiling. At around three months most will look at people’s faces and it is clearly a view they find captivatung. Those early stares are not exclusively directed at their parents. Over the past few weeks I have been stared out by five babies met by chance* and, as the recipient, I melt.
We are, it seems, hard-wired to stare, but as we age our stares becomes more measured with ‘staring’ itself seen as rude. In its place there is the much-softened eye contact, and that too is variable, particularly when out and about. Looking at people is still standard in the countryside. On walks, complete strangers look each other in the face. When two dots on the horizon finally get close, it would be unthinkable for them to walk by without a look. Indeed, if that happened, it would feel scary.
Things are different in a city such as London. When on-comers approach I often seek to exchange a gaze and a smile and, where appropriate, to doff my cap. But I am in the minority. Based on an ad hoc survey of twenty people who walked past me a few weeks ago, six exchanged glances with me; one looked through me; two continued talking to a companion or a mobile phone; two looked down, as though anxious not to lose their footing; and the remaining nine studiously looked anywhere rather than at me. In this tiny sample, the response didn’t seem to be affected by gender.
In enclosed spaces, such as trains, things are not very different. Once installed, I will usually have eye contact with those around when the occasion arises. Usually it is a matter of a mutual glance then a smile, may be a nod; together adding up to the all-important recognition of a shared presence (Sartre had an answer; 3 September 2017; joecollier.blog). However, two weeks ago things went very wrong. A glance was seen as a stare and then all hell let loose.
It was mid-morning and I had just got on an underground train at its terminus. Fortunately, one of my favourite seats was empty. As I sat down I noticed an unopened sandwich on the seat opposite. Next to it was a young woman who was, I assumed, it’s owner.
Just as I avoid sitting near people with coughs or colds, or passengers speaking on mobiles, I keep clear of eaters – smells, spills and the noise of munching just do not appeal. When I spotted the sandwich I considered moving but inertia prevailed. I glanced fleetingly at the woman opposite, in part interested to discover who was planning to eat the ham and coleslaw sarnie. She saw me looking and immediately glared fiercely back. Next, through curled lips, she said that I should stop staring at her. Her reprimand was public and embarrassing.
I looked away and gazed at the screen of my IPad which was taking its usual minute to boot up and so giving me time to puzzle over the work I would do on the journey. Then, without thinking I raised my head, and stared into the distance. Out of the corner of my eye I caught site of my accuser glaring at me and I looked over to check. At that she immediately became angry. With screwed up eyes and snarling lips she again demanded that I stop staring at her. Her demand was even louder.
Thrown by what I saw as an unfair outburst, I said how I was not staring, just dreaming. I should never have used that word. No matter that I meant staring into the distance, for her the image of a man dreaming and staring at her was clearly an affront too far. When I repeated my explanation “I was not staring at you, simply dreaming, thinking about what I would write on my computer”. With this she became incandescent, repeating very loudly her demand for me to stop. Being publicly admonished in this way hurt and I packed my things and moved away.
In this instance the woman opposite saw my glance as offensive, even malicious, and my clumsy response just compounded the problem. I assume that her behaviour was part of a new era of zero tolerance and assertiveness, both of which I applaud. But what happened to me that morning didn’t feel deserved. In the present social climate, such altercations are inevitable. I only hope it will never happen to me again.
* The photo is of Thomas, a complete stranger out with his mother in Richmond. The picture is used with her permission.