by Ana Paula Villarreal
Whether it is with fascination, awe, fear or curiosity, we have all done it. When we see something or someone that is too intriguing to look away from, we stare. Consciously or not, we hold our gaze uninterrupted and ignore everything while we focus our attention on this new phenomenon.
Staring goes against our cultural etiquette norms, but even more than rude, staring can be hurtful and demeaning. When we see someone that looks different from us or is doing something we’ve never seen, our instinct might be to hold our gaze as we assimilate this and attempt to understand it. The truth is staring makes people uncomfortable and self-conscious. Even more so, when the object of your awe is a person, staring can be dehumanizing. It is natural to be curious, as long as we become conscious of what our body language may convey.
The solution? Next time you feel the urge to stare at someone due to their physical characteristics, their behavior, or any other aspect that sparks your curiosity, just smile at them or start a conversation. People acknowledge each other, usually by saying hi, waving or most often, simply smiling. A smile becomes the universal message for acknowledgment. Even if we don’t know a person we see, we usually nod or smile when our gaze meets. Smiling at each other conveys we are recognizing each other’s humanity. Smiling means that even though you may still be curious, you’re trying not to be judgmental.
Curiosity, really, is not negative. In fact, it is a motivator for learning. As human beings, we’re hard wired to try to understand the unfamiliar. Sometimes by trying to be polite or respectful, we forget that being curious is normal, and asking questions is okay. Rather than perpetuating harmful taboos about topics that we feel uncomfortable with, we can make sure to turn our curiosity into knowledge by simply asking questions. Most of the time, people would rather have the chance to confidently answer your questions than be the embarrassed item of your glare or the victim of your assumptions or pity about their circumstances.
For example: I’m hearing impaired. This means that I have a partial hearing loss, difficulty communicating in loud environments, deciphering mumbled words, hearing soft voices, etc. To help me live, interact, and access everything around me I wear hearing aids. I also watch TV with subtitles, have a light-up phone ringtone, wake up to a vibrating bed alarm, and practice lip reading often. I love answering questions about my needs and how my tools work.
This past week I was at the airport and noticed a child staring at my hearing aids and asking his mother why the lady next to him had “machines” in her ears. I smiled to both of them, and his mother, noticeably nervous and awkward told him “don’t ask those types of questions sweetie”. Such a teachable moment, and it was missed. I would have been more than happy to answer the question myself, and show him how cool hearing aids can be, but the adult felt uncomfortable with the taboo topic, and assumed I would be too. Our flight got delayed, and I ended up playing with the child and eventually, showed him my hearing aids and showed him how they work. His mother kept apologizing and saying I didn’t have to do that. But I felt empowered by the opportunity to do so. I am not embarrassed, ashamed, shy or guarded about it. It was an important lesson: we should not assume that just because we are uncomfortable with a person’s circumstance, the person is too. If you ask, and a person does not feel comfortable sharing, you can step back. Still, most of the time, people with differences prefer having the opportunity to explain their differences in their own way, by confidently defining how they wish to be seen.
Let’s remove taboos and teach our children that curiosity is never wrong, that smiling and acknowledging others and asking open well-intentioned questions is always okay!