For years children have been playing the "stop looking at me" torture game on younger siblings or peers. My brother plagued me with it every time we took our six-hour journey from south to north and back, and I plagued schoolmates with it on the playground. The object of the game, of course, is to annoy the other person to the point that they give in and begin emitting high pitched whines like some injured animal that are combined with the tag-line.
I stopped playing this torture game when I was in elementary school, but apparently the habit of looking at people didn't go away. On a school bus crammed with the musty B.O. of high school kids I had the startling experience of being told to stop looking at my friend. She had sat in the seat in front of my own, her knee had been dislocated so her leg shot straight out in front of her in an unbending plaster cast. Facing sideways, with her back to the windows and the rushing scenery she was talking to me about something, I can't remember what anymore, and I was being the good friend and listening attentively. She paused suddenly spouted oddly, "Stop looking at me!" and raised her hand up between her face and my eyes.
I was perplexed.
"Your eyes...they're so freaky. Don't look at me like that, I don't like it when you stare."
Not really understanding exactly what she was talking about I tried my best to avoid looking at her with my "freaky stare" again. This was impossible and we repeated the situation several more times before we graduated.
What is it that makes people uncomfortable about direct stares? In college my communications professor told us that one way to fool a person into thinking you're listening to them is to stare directly at them. I tried this out on other professors, and he was right. Unfortunately it had a downside and I became the favorite student to pick out and do demonstrations on. There's nothing like your 6'4" anthropology professor looming over you and pretending she's a primate using her toothcomb to pick lice out of your hair.
In public if you stare at a stranger you tend to get a negative reaction. They either clutch their bags or stare angrily back at you. This must relate to the torture game we played as kids, a threat is perceived instead of genuine interest like the communications teacher proposed.
The appropriateness of staring is something I was made more aware of in college in another way, as well. I went to a small all women's college that ingrained in you the southern belle qualities of being a lady and showing your pearly whites and sweetest smile at all times. This also meant that when you walked down the halls you had better have your smile and hello's ready to offer up to every living thing you passed, because if you dared walk by someone without looking directly at them and offering these things up you were labeled moody, or unfriendly. When I visited NC State to use their vast library I discovered the drastic difference in small college and large college cultures. At the much larger school if you looked at the other students milling about you were sneered at, if you dared to smile and offer a hello to the strangers you were laughed at and labeled "Freshman" regardless of your Senior status at the other school. There the women walked with their eyes pointed to the ground watching the footsteps of the person in front of them so they didn't run into them or trip. Their whole bodies screamed "stop staring at me." I recognized it as the posture I had adorned in high school.
My first lover told me the thing he liked the best about being with me was that I stared at him while we were together. It was more intimate. Staring into his eyes, watching his expressions as our passion progressed added to my pleasure.
I like to observe people.
The only time I don't stare intently at someone is when I'm uncomfortable, in an awkward moment, when I've done something wrong and I'm being chastised; or when I meet someone new that my friends are trying to set me up with, I just can't meet their eyes. I find myself looking to the side, at the floor, anywhere but their eyes.
Staring carries with it many messages. It can be a threat, a sign of interest, or an intimacy. What people make of a stare tends to give away a little of themselves. Picture the beautiful woman who thinks everyone is staring because she is a goddess among mortals, when really they're all laughing about the toilet paper trailing out of her panty hose. The homeless man who feels degraded by stares that he thinks are judging him, when really they're by people who are judging themselves and weighing their fortune in life. The college professor who thinks his class full of students are hanging on his every word as they stare wide-eyed at him, when really they are all undressing him with their respective male and female eyes.
It's all a gambit when it comes to stares. That's probably why people would rather I stop staring at them, they don't want to have to deal with deciding why I'm staring in the first place.