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.

14 thoughts on “A Misunderstanding

  1. When someone reacts badly it’s useful and allows for learning and growth to assume that we are the ones at fault. But sometimes the problem lies to a greater or lesser extent with the other person.

    Sorting this out isn’t always easy, but it can help to relate the story to others and seek their view, as you are doing here.

    I can vaguely remember a woman in the past saying “Stop looking at me”.

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  2. Dear Joe, what a horrible and undeserved experience! Perhaps it helps to consider that the woman who so unnerved you may have been the victim of abuse, or she may have an illness of some kind.
    Remember though that most people love a friendly conversation or pleasant glance so don’t stop!

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    1. Dear Rob and Robin, I have learnt a lot from writing this piece and from the various comments now received; some written directly on the site, like yours, others arriving privately. I now know what I will do if the situation arises again. Just as I move away if someone sits down near me talking on the phone, eating , or coughing/sneezing, I will now do the same at the earliest hint of discord. I should have left when the women berated me the first time. Joe

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  3. Dear Joe, don’t change..!

    I agree that you should remove yourself from any situation if someone is so angry, self important, upset or stressed, however I think you did the right thing by explaining your intention was not to cause offence.

    As said by others, perhaps and hopefully the woman would reflect on her behaviour and words… you’re such a gentle soul, observational and direct, that’s you and as you know you can engage total strangers and enjoy many conversations and encounters.

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  4. Fascinating story, Joe. One with a lot of ramifications. That woman was unbalanced; you are balanced. How the balanced deals with the unbalanced I think is a matter of taste, rather than morality.
    I would consider that you were so right to engage with her, futile though it turned out to be!

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  5. …And another thing – what an exceptionally beautiful baby that is!
    I knew a wonderful paediatrician called Sam Richmond (maybe you knew him?) who used to stop babies crying by going up and looking at them. I witnessed this on the ferry to Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, in a crowded restaurant. I say looking, but i suppose it was staring – though that doesn’t have the flavour of direct personal engagement through eye contact that was Sam’s speciality. It never failed – babies forgot to cry. I believe Kierkegaard used to do the same thing – though to adults as well. Maybe we should all put ourselves in the way of that skill…?!

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    1. Dear Merrily, With regard to your first comment – while I may have been right to confront her, it made the experience that much more unpleasant and, for my own sake, if there is a next time, I plan to move away and say nothing. As to your second comment, I agree, Thomas is a beautiful baby. As I said, he and his mother were, and remain, total strangers who I met by chance. I gave the mother the address of my site before the blog was published but I have no idea whether she has seen the picture on line. Finally, I liked the story about Sam Richmond but have to report that I do not know him. Joe

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  6. Dear Joe,

    It sounds a horrible and upsetting incident. Brave to write about it.
    I also try and make eye contact with people and connect, but it is difficult territory.

    Current experience in a London general practice is that, currently, people are very wired to respond angrily about anything. There is so much pressure on people at the moment – benefit cuts/employers/zero hours, contracts/ relationships /housing/money/Trumpism/Brexitism etc etc

    Sometimes I think people find the opportunity to let off steam on strangers, therapeutic. Not healthy, and very destructive for the victims and people around them. In general practice we can move beyond it …usually…but for sporadic incidents like this or road rage it just sits, so it’s good to explore the impact.

    Very best

    Judith Ibison

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    1. Dear Judith, Your expérience rings true. As an observation, the media increasingly encourages rudeness. From Paxman interviews to reality TV programmes such as ‘Big Brother’, success seems to be measured in terms of aggression and confrontation.. Perhaps we need to look no further for a source! Yours, Joe

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  7. What a horrible experience. My thoughts when reading your blog is that she must be deranged. It seems like a completely disproportionate reaction. But the way other people respond to things is sometimes unexpected and shocking. Once, after getting on a train to London – old-style carriages with facing benches – I sat opposite a woman. I crossed my legs and must have brushed my foot on her trouser leg – maybe a couple of times. She berated me loudly for ‘wiping my feet on her clothes’. I moved.

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      1. Dear Andrea, Whatever her state of mind, like it was for you, the incident upset me for days. I have learned an important message: if there is a hint of trouble – leave immediately. Yours, Joe

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  8. Update. A week after publishing this blog, a second encounter made things feel much better. I got on to my train, exchanged a brief ‘hello’ eye contact with a young woman opposite (she had a very different face from the woman in the original story) and started to work. Soon I realised that she was looking at me intently. She then lent forward and said how grateful she was that I was sitting opposite. She explained how she hated travelling as she was always frightened of being attacked. My presence made her feel safe. Then she repeated her gratitude. I found myself saying that she did not need to say any of that, had someone threatened her I would have come to her aid anyway. Then followed a long silence and I went back to writing.

    As I got out from the train a few minutes later, she thanked me once again, this time adding ‘you have been really cool’. I am not sure exactly what she meant but felt reassured, and with her comment my memories of the earlier ‘misunderstanding’ greatly eased. Joe Collier

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