Staring and Gawking

by admin on January 26, 2012

I’ve browsed through the collection of stories on this website before, and I have always silently congratulated myself on avoiding such boorish and awkward behaviour. I thought that, while I may not be the most polite, well behaved person in the world, I was exceptionally polite for someone my age.

I no longer feel that way.

A few days ago, while out Christmas shopping with a friend, we stopped to have a snack and a rest at a local cafe. While I was there, a lady with a large scar down her face walked in, and seated herself at the table opposite me. I am pleased to say that nobody in the cafe gawped, and the waitress was calm and professional as she served her. I felt a rush of happiness to witness the impeccable manners of those around me. It was not to last long.

After our snack, my friend excused herself. Bored in her absence, I began to daydream, staring off into space.

A deliberate cough returned me to reality. To my shock and horror, I had been staring, almost gawping, directly at the lady with the scar! She was understandably upset, and quickly left the cafe. In my shock and embarrassment, I did not manage to explain to her what had happened.

My friend returned to find me silent and shocked, while most of the cafe patrons shot me disapproving and even openly hostile looks. I felt like an insensitive boor.

What should I do if this ever happens again? What should I say if I encounter the lady again – should I explain what happened, or simply let it go?   1220-11

While you did not mean any harm, every observer around you interpreted your actions to be rude.  Just suck it up as a consequence of being inattentive to where your eyes were focused and rest in the knowledge that you were the sole catalyst for a cafe full of people believing they made the world a better place with their unified disdain to perceived rudeness.

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Cat January 26, 2012 at 11:52 am

Don’t feel too bad about it. You didn’t intend any harm.

I got into a lot of trouble in the convent because an older sister thought I was making fun of her during choir practice. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket and was concentrating on doing my best not to throw the others off. I didn’t even know she was there. I had no idea she was upset until the sister next to me told me. When I looked over to see where she was, the older sister was glaring at me.

I was shocked because I would never make fun of another person. I have no idea as to what I was doing that caused her to arrive at such a conclusion, and, being forbidden as a novice to speak to a professed sister, I couldn’t ask her.

When in a restaurant, maybe it’s best to bring a book to read if you are left alone.

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L.J. January 26, 2012 at 12:00 pm

I sympathize, it happens to all of us.

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Cat Whisperer January 26, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Wow.

I feel for the OP, I really do. How many times have I been in a restaurant and while my husband was in the bathroom, or while other people at the table conversed, have I taken that mindless “mental vacation” and found myself just staring at something or in the direction of someone, and shaken myself awake, no harm and no foul? Happens all the time.

Six years ago, my husband and stumbled on the best ever invention for making us mindful of where we’re blissfully and mindless directing our eyes while our minds coast in neutral.

It’s called a TEENAGED DAUGHTER.

About the time our daughter turned 12 or thirteen, she decided that her father and I are in many ways completely mindless boobs who were in danger of finding ourselves in a correctional institute for the completely socially incompetent if she didn’t intervene whenever we were out in public together to keep us in line.

At a restaurant or other public location, mind coasting in neutral and no idea where my gaze is parked? “MOTHER!” urgently hissed, sotto voce, waking me from my reverie. “DO YOU KNOW YOU’RE STARING LIKE AN IDIOT?”

Or, the even more urgent, and accusatory, “WHAT are you staring at, mother? CAN YOU STOP IT?”

Daughter is 19 now and has gone away to college, so husband and I are more likely to find ourselves staring earnestly and mindlessly out in public. Without her monitoring us, I’m sure we probably aren’t perfect in the mindless-staring department. But we cope.

OP, it’s happened to us all in one form or another and we’re all mortified when it results in inadvertent embarrassment of another person. All you can do is apologize if you inadvertently cause offense, understand that nobody is perfect, give thanks that your gaffe wasn’t something much, much more embarrassing (believe me, we’ve all got stories), and move on.

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The Elf January 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm

I have done this! Thankfully, not to someone with an obvious disfigurement, but staring off randomly. I’m off in my little world, making a mental list of what I need to do, mulling over a problem, or just in la-la land and when I get back to my usual level of awareness, I realize I was staring directly at someone! A few times someone has asked if there was a problem or something, clearly expressing displeasure with my apparant staring.

OP, I still let myself drift. But now I look at an open book or my phone. Best to stare off into space unoccupied by a person.

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David January 26, 2012 at 12:33 pm

OP, I have been in a similar situation so I understand your mortification.

What my inattentiveness left me with was the decision to try and give starers the benefit of the doubt. As we have both found out, not everyone who is staring is even cognizant of where their eyes are pointing until it is too late.

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Jojo January 26, 2012 at 12:50 pm

OP’s experience is just another reminder of how easy it is to unthinkingly cause offense. We all mess up spectacularly from time to time and have to live with the consequences. It also outlines how sensitive other people are about things they consider defects in themselves. The lady OP stared at could easily have said something to OP or moved to another seat but chose instead to think the worst and leave .
I’ve come into contact with a great number of people with physical abnormalities and the people who have the happiest lives are the ones who choose not to take other people and their unthinking behaviour personally. Of course there are times when they are hurt and upset by others but to allow your day to be ruined by someone you perceive as ignorant and uncouth is just setting yourself up to see the world as a place where you are a victim rather than an active participant.
OP’s intention to remedy the situation is sweet and if she gets a chance, I hope she does have the opportunity to set the record straight. I do wonder, however, if the lady would not just take more offense if OP’s apology wasn’t very, very carefully worded.

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Amber January 26, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Well, this wasn’t your fault at all. “Zoning out” is actually a perfectly normal function of the brain. It’s like the brain puts on a screen saver when it need a quick rest during the day. In fact, studies show that it may be crucial for ultimate attentiveness: http://discovermagazine.com/2009/jul-aug/15-brain-stop-paying-attention-zoning-out-crucial-mental-state

Unfortunately, when the brain decides to take a quick break, our eyes may drift towards another person. People should be more forgiving of this since EVERYONE does this from time to time. If some stranger is staring at you, a sharp cough or hand wave should snap that person out of it. If they keep staring, then that’s another issue all together!

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Kitty Lizard January 26, 2012 at 1:32 pm

My husband and I have a friend whose face is horribly disfigured from a car accident when he
was a small child. (He went through a car windshield face first as a toddler.) We’ve known him for so
long that we don’t notice it anymore but occasionally, in public, someone will either say something or
stare. He laughs it off, but the staring can be off-putting in the extreme. I’ve noticed, though, that you
can pretty much tell if someone is staring AT you, as opposed to staring into space vacantly. There IS
a difference – sort of a lights are on but nobody’s home kind of thing. One time, he and I switched
places and the woman’s expression didn’t change a bit. Yup, she was daydreaming.

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TheVapors January 26, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Who hasn’t ever found themselves vacantly staring in some random direction? I only wish that a sign would automatically roll out in front of my eyes that states “not staring just daydreaming”.

Until that day comes, I’m stuck with occasionally looking like a goof.

This is one of those situations where it’s a good reminder not to take everything that everyone does as a personal insult. Sometimes we’re all just a little mindless.

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wyntershere January 26, 2012 at 2:53 pm

I got into to trouble once doing this….apparently while at the wal-mart, in one of my daydreams, I walked past a customer from our business. I never saw her but she reported to the boss that I had ignored her and she was very offended and she took her business somewhere else (our business is very service oriented and directly relates to the mental health field, I have no doubts her problem with the company was much bigger than my simply ignoring her, but she had to place blame somewhere and I was an easy target). I pleaded that I had been in la-la land, and didn’t see her, and even though I didn’t get fired or anything, I am always really concerned about doing this again. I asked to call the customer and explain, but my boss was mature enough to realize it probably really wasn’t about it and let it go.

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ellesee January 26, 2012 at 3:00 pm

It happens to us all. Everytime a friend leaves the table, I pull out my phone or stare at my food/drink.

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hannahere January 26, 2012 at 3:03 pm

I read an interesting study done recently that said in order to get our kids used to the fact that we are different from each other (in whatever ways –color, sex, religion, hobbies, disabilities,culture, language, etc.) that we should POINT out these differences regularly to our kids (instead of trying to ignore them and have them look away). The study was backed up by a lot of scientific evidence so I really think there’s truth to it. So if your kids want to walk up to a wheel bound chair friend, or someone with a disfigurement and asked, “what happened?” we should encourage it and help them disseminate the information they receive.

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Wink-n-Smile January 26, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Good luck with setting the record straight, OP.

I’ve been there, and done that, both on the staring and receiving end. I guess the best thing you can do in the future is train yourself to look up or down, so that you’re obviously not staring at someone else.

Take the old-fashioned “daydream pose,” with your chin in your hand, and your eyes looking upward, as if you are watching the thought bubbles coming out of your cartoon head. No one mistakes this for staring. The pose is well-known in comic books and the like, and I now believe it is because someone, long ago, decided this was the proper etiquette for day-dreaming, specifically to avoid situations like yours. It may not be listed in an etiquette book, but it should be.

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D January 26, 2012 at 3:45 pm

What do you do when people keep accusing you of being rude, evil, et cetera, and confront you in a very hostile way about it? I get this all the time and everyone expects me to know that I’ve done something to offend, but they won’t tell me what it is! I don’t mind if someone lets me know something is bothering them but the hostile confrontations are just uncalled for.

My sister has done this, a former co-worker, and an online friend. No one ever explains, so I’m left wondering what in the world I did. Without explanation it feels like I must just be so evil or something that I don’t deserve to be treated with respect. Any advice?

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Cat Whisperer January 26, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Jojo said:

“… I’ve come into contact with a great number of people with physical abnormalities and the people who have the happiest lives are the ones who choose not to take other people and their unthinking behaviour personally…”

Amen. When I was on my second week as a new hire, I found myself engaging in polite chit-chat with the ladies who were now my co-workers. I barely knew their names at this time and didn’t know anything at all about them.

One of the ladies started the subject of dieting and weight loss. I was at that time engaged in the perpetual struggle to lose 15 pounds, so I found this conversation interesting. There were about half a dozen of us and we were talking about things we’d found that were helpful in losing weight: keeping carrot sticks handy to munch on, drinking a big glass of water before a meal, eating vegetables and whole-grain breads and so forth.

Someone made the comment that there was just no easy way to lose that nagging last 15 pounds. Trying to be witty, I made the bright and chipper comment that maybe the easiest way to lose it would be to just lose an arm or a leg.

At that point, one of the ladies whose name was Doris got a wicked grin. She was wearing slacks and I had noticed that she had a bit of a limp. She had been sitting with her legs up on her desk and she leaned forward, took her left foot in her hands, gave it a little bit of twist and tug, and took her prosthetic leg off and held it out to me. “No, I can tell you, that isn’t an easy way to lose 15 pounds!” she said.

I was absolutely positively beyond mortified. I had had no idea she was an amputee. I wanted the earth to swallow me up at that moment.

Meanwhile, everyone else was roaring with laughter, Doris included. One of the other ladies gasped out that I had just made their day, and it was very clear that Doris wasn’t offended and nobody had taken my gaffe offensively.

I worked with those people for 30+ years, and they were an awesome bunch of people who loved to laugh and have fun. Doris, I learned, had lost her leg to cancer and I wasn’t the first newbie who had learned she was an amputee when she took her prosthetic off in the course of a conversation. She was a very smart lady with a wicked sense of humor, who had absolutely no self-consciousness about being an amputee. (She told some very ribald stories about how some of her boyfriends reacted when they found out, definitely stories for mature audiences!)

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Enna January 26, 2012 at 4:08 pm

Maybe the lady was upset at something else? She might have thought you were staring at her or looking at something behind her. If you try to set the record straight if you see this lady again the lady might think “what are you talking about?” She could have forgotten or been upset about something else.

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The Elf January 26, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Oh, Cat Whisperer. One day your daughter will become a normal human again.

There are days when I think back to the teenage years and realize I owe Mom one huge apology. Dad too, but especially Mom.

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--Lia January 26, 2012 at 4:32 pm

I would guess that even people with scars know what it is to get lost in a daydream and stare into space. She may have thought you were gawping at her, or she may have thought you were doing what you were doing– not paying attention to anything much around you. The same goes for the people giving you openly hostile looks. This is one that everyone should get over quickly since no real harm was done.

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Miss Sweetbones January 26, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Oh, no! I’ve had things like this happen and felt just awful. Once I was hiking with a friend. He was following me back down the mountain and said something funny. I burst out laughing. A man who was coming up towards us thought I was laughing at him and snapped, “What’s so funny!?” I felt horrible that he thought I was laughing at him, so I apologized and said that I had been laughing at my friend’s joke. I think something like this has happened to everyone at some point or another.

I like the idea of bringing a book when you are going out and about to help prevent the inadvertent stare. I usually pull out my phone and play Words with Friends (with the phone silenced, of course).

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Cordelia January 26, 2012 at 5:35 pm

I have a few scars on my face. While they are not large enough to be truly disfiguring, they are big enough to stand out and attract unwanted attention.

I really try not to take staring as an insult. It’s not fun for me, but people just naturally want to study something that they don’t see every day and let their eyes linger there for a bit. That’s not to say I enjoy conversing with people who “look me in the scar”, rather than the eye, for an entire conversation, but I understand if someone needs a moment to get used to me.

What gets insulting is when other people make it a topic of conversation. They demand to know why I have them (that’s nobody’s business, so don’t ask), and why I don’t cover them up with makeup (I find that pancake stuff uncomfortable, I don’t feel the need to hide part of my face just to please other people). Invasive personal questions, and treating me as if I’m not properly ashamed of my scars, are both much more rude than absent-minded staring!

OP, please remember that you didn’t mean to be rude (and frankly, people rarely do actually mean to be rude). Just try to use this as a learning experience to be more careful not to stare at *anyone*, whether he or she has an unusual feature or not.

If you meet this woman again, just treat her like a normal person and be sure to look her in the eye. Looking anywhere else will make her think you’re staring at her scar or averting your eyes from it, both of which would be rude. Only explain your previous behavior if she brings it up. Then, just explain it was an innocent accident, and that you only realized what it looked like you were doing when she seemed upset and the other diners glared at you. That should suffice.

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Cat January 26, 2012 at 6:12 pm

Message to “D”: Tell your sister you can’t help her if you don’t know what you did but you will certainly understand if she never wants to speak to you again and drop the on-line buddy and the former co-worker from your life. This is a game people play to victimize you by playing the “victim” of your supposed cruelty by keeping you guessing what you did.

Take it a step farther and ask, “Is it because I am having an affair with your husband?” “Is it because I stole from your bank account?” “Is it because I planted drugs in your desk at work to get you fired?” “Is it because I never told you that you are adopted and that Mom and Dad are leaving you nothing in their will?” “Is it because I shot your dog/stoleyour family Bible/cut the brake line in your car?”

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Edhla January 26, 2012 at 6:13 pm

There is such a difference when someone is looking AT you and looking THROUGH you because they’re daydreaming and on another planet. That this lady didn’t know the difference isn’t your fault. It’s possible she’s so used to people being actually rude that she’s become a little oversensitive to these things.

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LilyG January 26, 2012 at 6:18 pm

Everyone has done this sort of thing.
I once caught a handsome young man blantantly starting at my breasts (they’re pretty big). I was furious and was glaring at him when he refused to stop. Finally, he got up with his white cane and went on his way. I then felt like a boor giving a poor blind man the flaming hairy eyeball.

I also was involved in resusitating a man on a flight in progress. After we landed and the ambulance carted the(we didn’t know it then, but he was doa) man away, I was shaking and full of adrenalin. Someone made some mild gallows humor and I burst into loud wild cackling braying laughter to my eternal embarrassment.

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--Lia January 26, 2012 at 7:55 pm

Building on hannahere’s post– When explaining to children, the emphasis should be put on what the person can do more than what happened in the past. If the question is about the wheelchair, the explanation should be put in terms of how the person in the funny wheeled chair can get around and go places. Granted you’ll need to say something about not being able to walk, but that can be lightly skipped over in order to get to the fun stuff about being able to go up and down ramps. Someone with a face disfigured with scars can likely still smile even if it looks different from someone else’s smile. And I’ve seen children become positively entranced with the puzzle of how you can communicate just with your hands or with experimenting with what you can tell about the world with a cane. And dogs! There’s a ton of etiquette advice that children positively delight in about how you don’t bother a dog who’s doing an important job, but how the dog takes work breaks and might like to be petted then if you get permission first. When you put the discussion in those terms, asking questions and getting honest answers doesn’t have to be awkward.

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PrincessSimmi January 26, 2012 at 8:28 pm

I have a cat that regularly gives me the lights-are-on-but-nobody-is-home look (poor kitty has mental issues). I can guarantee it’s easy enough to tell when someone isn’t home and the lady shouldn’t have been upset at you, OP. Waving your hand at someone who is in la-la land is pretty much a sure-fire way to see who’s home and who isn’t.

I once had to explain to my three year old cousin why there were men in dresses standing around a grave singing in a weird language and blowing incense around. Try to explain that one. I think my answer was something along the lines of:
“You know how your middle name is _____? I have the same middle name. We’re both named after our Granny, and she’s an Angel in heaven now. So, every year, we come here to remember her and how much we loved her and she loved us.”
“But, why are the men wearing dresses?”
“Well, Granny was something called [religion]. The men wear these things called robes. They look like dresses, but they’re special clothes that help us to talk to the Angels.”
“Oh, ok. But why can’t we see her?”
“Because we can’t see the Angels, they live in the clouds. When you see a rainbow, you know Granny loves you.”
“Oh, ok.”

I’m just waiting for her to ask why I’m taller than her Dad.

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MoniCAN January 26, 2012 at 9:43 pm

I like the suggestions to make sure you are staring at a phone or a book or out the window when you zone off…but the whole point of zoning off is that you lose where you are. Very few people can make a set plan and say “I’m about to zone out…I better make sure I’m not looking towards anyone.”

It would be nice if it were that easy, but it’s not.
When I zone out and get called out on it by my friends, it seems I’m always staring at someone’s crotch or chest. Embarrassing.
This is why I always assume someone that looks like they are staring at me is probably not even noticing me, especially if their expression doesn’t ever change.

Once in the insecure world of high school, a girl in our gym class came in with a new hairdo. She looked amazing and a few of the other girls and I commented on how great she looked as she walked to the other side of gym. Moments later her friend ran up to us and read us the riot act on how cruel and mean we were to be talking bad about her and would we please stop being such bullies…etc.

The girl with the new hair and her fried saw us looking toward her and talking, so they just assumed we had bad intentions.

Giving people the benefit of the doubt could probably prevent a large number of the misunderstandings we see on this website.

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Rug Pilot January 27, 2012 at 1:14 am

I finally figured out what I was focused on while my mind was wandering. It is a spot about 7″ directly in front of the bridge of my nose. Not everything directly ahead of your eyes is being looked at. It is selfcenteered to think that you are the center of attention.

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Edhla January 27, 2012 at 5:15 am

Lia,

Your mileage may vary when explaining disabilities to children. I have Spina Bifida, and every now and again a little one will ask me “what’s wrong with your legs?” (No wheelchair, but I have pretty obvious problems walking.)

I don’t go into really awkward details, but under no circumstances would I want anyone else, nor would I myself, try to make a disability sound “fun.” It strikes me as very, very patronising; it’s also not particularly true, since I don’t know too many people with disabilities who think their wheelchair is a “funny wheeled chair.” It is what it is- a way for them to get around the place.

When children ask me about why I “walk funny”, the most common reaction from their parents is absolute mortification. I usually smile at them, reassure them that I’m not offended, and explain as best I can depending on the age group. Does it hurt? Nope. Can I run or skip or dance? Nope. It’s a fact, I’m not going to bring them down by being miserable (I don’t suffer) but I’m not going to go out of my way to make my disability seem “fun.” I’m as matter-of-fact as possible; like I said, YMMV, but I really do think this is the best approach. If I overheard a parent talking to a child about how quaint and fun things must be for me, I would be very hurt.

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Marna January 27, 2012 at 5:32 am

I gotta say, I have to use a wheelchair for trips that require more than the bare minimum of walking due to back issues. Personally, I would not welcome inquiries from a total stranger’s child as to WHY I use my chair. I mean, really, how much of my medical information is “enough”? I know it’s probably because I myself have a great deal of ambivalence about needing the chair, but still…

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Jessica January 27, 2012 at 6:20 am

OP, I too did this. Although I grew out of it. And by “grew out” I do _not_ mean that it is a sign of immaturity – it’s just that in my case it was an actual physical affliction. It’s called a petite mal and can be a sign of low grade epilepsy but in my case was deemed to be migraine aura since the “episodes” were usually followed by an attack. I “grew out of it” because my migraines are subsiding with age and aura episodes subside faster than the actual attacks since not every episode comes with aura.

I’m sorry your quirk gave you embarrassment. I took to always carrying a book for situations where I could be caught with no general line of sight – waiting for someone etc – because like you I occasionally ended up in socially awkward positions. All from realizing I’d just stared rudely at someone – to men insisting I had given them the eye and were now puzzled and hurt that I hadn’t even noticed them and most definitely didn’t feel like following them to a second location.

OT:
As for me, I have given myself an internal ticker widget that counts days in a row without an aura. When I have gone two years with no such episode (the same rules that apply to epilepsy in my country), I will treat myself to learning to drive and getting a license. I am not legally restricted from driving but I have restricted myself because I know how quickly I can lose focus or suffer loss of sight in one eye. I’m eighteen months and counting!

Not being able to drive is a constant cause of social awkwardness. Since I have no legal restriction people don’t understand why I just don’t learn how to do it and get a car. (It’s for YOUR sake. Yes, I believe I could probably handle myself should I unexpectedly suffer an attack in the middle of the motor way. I’d be able to get to a stopping place and wait out the aura, which is usually 30 minutes or less – I can function well enough to get myself home safely through the pain but not through the aura. But why would I risk that? It’s not just about my safety it’s yours too.)

Maybe your story is a reminder to us all that we don’t always know what’s going on underneath a situation? Us mind-drifters aren’t even that few. I’m sad the lady felt uncomfortable – lord knows I’m sensitive about being looked at – but since we can’t rid the world of mind-drifters, maybe she’d at some point need to learn to discern between gawping and drifting. A drifter can be recognized if you look properly. A gawp and a thousand yard stare are fairly easy to tell apart if you rack up the courage to stare back.

The next time I feel gawped at, I will take the time to look straight back. Maybe the gawper is just miles away. I’ll feel better and they may never notice that I checked and if they ARE gawping, then maybe I’m better off confronting their stare anyway.

See, now your misadventure had a happy side effect! Someone feels better, because you shared.

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Library Diva January 27, 2012 at 11:17 am

Awkwardness. It can strike anyone, at any time. OP, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Unless you live in a town with a population of 100 people, you’re unlikely to ever encounter the woman with the scar again, and if you do, just treat her like anyone else. Trying to ‘explain’ or ‘apologize’ would just lead to another awkward situation.

I think it is a good idea to explain to children how different people are different, but I think a line needs to be drawn at actively encouraging them to ask questions. That lady in the wheelchair in line ahead of you at the grocery store is just trying to go about her business like anyone else. She’s not there to be an example of how she can still do things despite not being able to walk very well, she’s there to get her food for the week.

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Girlysprite January 27, 2012 at 5:37 pm

When I was in highschool, the gossip of the class was that I was a lesbian, and in love with one of my female classmates? Why? History class was boring and I zoned out, apparently with my face in her direction. It took me quite some time, during which one girl faked being a lesbian in an attempt to ‘get me out of the closet’, to fix that misunderstanding.

Just saying…it can always be worse ;)

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ilex January 29, 2012 at 1:09 am

Oh, it’s happened to me too. One time that I clearly remember was when I was in my early 20s and living in a large city, a few block from a touristy area. There was a very non-touristy convenience store in my neighborhood that had a huge salad bar/buffet in the middle of it with a lot of exotic options. One day when I stopped in, a couple of tourists were at the salad bar loudly pointing out the interesting foods. I was lost in thought, and as I walked by, I guess I looked over at them, and the man stopped and said, loudly, “What is SHE looking at?!” I was taken aback, but I just ignored him. Of course I replayed it in my head (was I really staring at him rudely?), and I felt bad about it even though I wasn’t consciously staring at him. I guess he was self-conscious about the fact that they were obviously not from the neighborhood, but I really couldn’t have cared less.

On the topic of children staring/making comments, I’ve been on the receiving end of that. I don’t have a disability, but I’m biracial and grew up in the 70s when mixed-race families weren’t as common a sight as they are now. We lived in a very white town for a few years when I was a kid, and I’ll always remember one time when I was at the library and a little girl, maybe three, kept openly staring at me. Her mother was with her, and was obviously embarrassed. As she led her away, the daughter said, “Mommy, that girl is VERY dirty!” Mortified, the mother told her, no, it was just my raincoat. I was maybe six, and I thought the mother’s explanation was completely rude, as if I was too stupid to know what her daughter meant. I got that the girl was referring to my dark skin and that she had probably never seen a non-white person before (or even watched Sesame Street, apparently). I was far more offended by the raincoat remark than the innocent “dirty” remark. I know she was at a loss and it was said with good intentions, but was it that hard to tell her that people come in different colors? I imagine she did explain it to her in the car, but to this day I feel embarrassed for that woman every time I think about it.

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Sugaryfun January 30, 2012 at 12:07 am

Don’t feel too bad about it. It’s not as if you did it on purpose.

I had a similar experience, though it was just embarrassing to me not upsetting to anyone else. I was staring into space in a restaurant and some guy thought I was checking him out. I must have been staring for several minutes. You can’t really help being a daydreamer, it’s just how some people are.

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OP January 30, 2012 at 2:35 am

Hey guys, it’s me, the OP. I would just like to say thanks for the understanding – it made me feel better to realize it has happened to other people!

I don’t blame the woman from reacting badly – the scar was very prominent and disfiguring. However, I don’t think I’ll ever see her again. I do feel kinda bad, but at least I know I was not intentionally rude.

I would like to point out that I am a teenager, and the town does have major problems with teenage gangs and the like, so that may have contributed to the hostile reaction.

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Cat Whisperer January 31, 2012 at 2:03 am

I have a post-script to add to this discussion.

This weekend, husband and I were at the Norton Simon museum in Pasadena. It’s a great museum if you’re ever in SoCal, with a very fine collection of Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh and other modern masters.

Husband and I were leisurely going through the galleries, when I noticed a lady looking very intently at me. When she was me catch her glance, she came over to me, and in very heavily accented English, asked if I would mind if she took a picture of the back of the tee-shirt I was wearing.

Well, I live in tee shirts, most of them that come from museums and are bought on sale. I happily wear them and usually just grab whatever is clean out of the dryer when I get dressed. I’ve gotten comments about tee shirts before, but never had anyone request to take a picture of one I was wearing.

I told the lady that I was fine with her taking a picture, so I turned around and presented my back, moving my hair out of the way so she could get a clear picture. She took her picture, thanked me, and we moved on.

As soon as she was out of sight, I asked my husband to tell me what I had on my back that would cause someone in a gallery with approximately half a billion dollars’ worth of magnificent artwork on the walls to notice me. I honestly, truly had not noticed when I put the tee shirt on what I was wearing.

It was a shirt from the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, and on the front it has a “family tree” diagram of zoological classifications from bacteria all the way up to homo sapiens. On the back is this quotation from Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

…And adaptation certainly includes accepting that sometimes we make mistakes, like inadvertently staring at people, and when that’s brought to our attention, it’s best to just learn from the experience and move on. Or even let someone take a picture of words on your backside as you stand in the middle of a gallery of art masterpieces. Live and learn.

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CJ January 31, 2012 at 11:26 am

Oh thank goodness I have never had that expericance…when I space out men think I am into them…lol.

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TylerBelle April 12, 2012 at 2:53 pm

I can pattern my post of many in here about being on the receiving end of stares due to my height, or actually lack there of, as I’m what you can call a “little person” (or “dwarf,” if you will, just please not the derogatory “midget”). Being noticed is not upsetting, though it can be when it comes to gawking, accompanied by pointing. And as Cordelia mentioned, it can become insulting when one’s difference from others gets made into the topic of conversation, along with intrusive questions and comments, etc, especially when it goes on and on.

Also as mentioned, you can tell most of the time who is focusing steadily on you and who is simply gazing off into space but they just so happening to doing so in your direction. And I concur with others as saying that the OP didn’t seem rude in their actions, and if ever encountering the lady with the scar, again as mentioned, simply see her as everyone else :).

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