What Are You Staring At?
As a child I was conditioned to uphold the virtues of British politeness at all costs, on pain of a severe clip around the ear. As brutal as this upbringing may sound, as I grew older it helped me navigate British society with the minimum of fuss which, by the way, is a central tenant of our little island. First and foremost don't make unwarranted fuss. Furthermore, only complain as a last resort, to yourself, in the comfort of your own living room. If you must make a fuss, write a strongly worded, yet polite letter and expect nothing to come from it. Then make a cup of tea. Other important rules that should be mentioned at this juncture include:
Queue in an orderly fashion
Always say 'please' and 'thank you'
Social awkwardness is better than making a scene
It's not polite to stare.
It turns out that most of these rules are universal, well maybe the queueing part is a peculiar British compulsion. Even though politeness is generally the same throughout Europe, I have come to discover while living in Germany that the last point on the list is positively encouraged. Staring at everyone and everything is a part of life in Germany. People will stare at the weird and the wonderful, as you would expect, but sometimes you will look up to find people studying you as if they were about to sit an exam based on your actions during an average Thursday commute. Again, this is not necessarily the most abnormal thing, I am sure we have all been caught absently staring at someone. The difference in Germany is that, unlike in the UK, Germans won’t quickly look away, they will instead continue to look at you intensely.
When I lived in a small village, I was not surprised to see people staring. In a town of a few hundred, new people are often the subject of curious looks, especially when I was speaking English. Wearing an England football top led to some curious glances, during most international football tournaments, this increased to a look of abject pity. I had also, on occasion, caught my octogenarian neighbours peeking out from behind their net curtains as I went to and from work. Again this is to be expected of the elderly of any nation, why watch soap operas when the greatest interactive soap of all time is only a curtain twitch away? What I have a problem with is what I can only term the German “intensive laser stare”.
As I already mentioned, what marks this social peccadillo out as odd is that you don't have to be doing anything peculiar for the lasers to be activated. The effect this has on non-Germans is an intense paranoia. When I first arrived, my own fears manifested themselves in a particular way; I developed “zipper” or “fly down” paranoia, that is to say I encountered so many stares that I instantly thought I must have forgotten to do up the buttons or zip on the front of my trousers and was forced to check. This only served to exacerbate the issue. As they kept staring, I kept checking as covertly as possible, which isn’t so covert if everyone you walk past appears to have noticed. This must have presented a rather bizarre and stare worthy situation too as to the innocent German bystander, there was some lunatic wandering around checking his testicles every two metres. Instead of solving the problem, I had basically created a zipper checking feedback loop.
Staring can also ramp up the feeling of intimidation. Walking into any bar in Germany, you are guaranteed to be met by the entire room staring at you, especially if it’s not your local haunt. Again, this happens in a lot of places, but rarely do people actively turn around to stare at the newcomers. I have walked into a number of bars with my wife only to be faced with a wall of eyes peering back at us. And they will continue staring for as long as they deem sufficient, some might go back to their conversations quickly, while others will track your movements as if in the hope of finally getting hold of a Crime Stoppers cash reward.
Rarely does this cause any actual lasting damage, but if Germans take this habit with them to the UK, they might find themselves in real bother. Having worked in bars, I've heard the phrase 'what you staring at?' being used as an informal precursor to bar stools and beer glasses being launched with deadly, NASA like accuracy. I can’t count the amount of times I have had to tell my German family not to stare at people, especially in those situations where they really want to. My wife’s position is that if you don’t want to be stared at, don’t do things worthy of a long staring. My position is, if you love your husband and would like him to maintain his rugged good looks, please stop staring at the deranged looking guy walking his brick like a dog.
So ingrained is the concept of staring in German culture, it has found an important place in the traditions of saying ‘prost’ or in English ‘cheers’. When we say cheers in English speaking countries, it’s usually half-hearted and slightly awkward, except after the fifth or sixth beer. At no point is anyone going to do something as intensely off putting as looking at you directly in the eyes. German drinking etiquette requires the “Prost Stare”, which is initiated when clinking glasses. Everyone must then look each other in the eyes or suffer social ostracism. To be perfectly honest, I don't really mind this one if there are only a couple of people with you. It only becomes complicated when you are with twenty or so people and inevitably you develop some kind of repetitive strain disorder.
I cannot begin to explain the origin of the laser eye. Perhaps Germany has suffered from some secret outbreak of giant carnivores that no one told me about and everyone is still a little skittish about their return. Maybe all the people who stare are government surveillance robots, insuring the safety of the populace by monitoring possible threats, like the Geordie guy who just moved in at the end of the street. Either option is credible. Personally I think the best way of countering a good stare is to smile back and maybe wave. If you’re feeling brave, blow a kiss. Perhaps you might make a new friend. Then again, you might also get killed by a robot. What’s life without a little jeopardy?