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Staring vs. Looking

Posted by Peter Post  October 1, 2013 07:00 AM

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Just the other day a friend in New York City asked me if it’s unacceptable to stare while at work. It seems a co-worker had been staring at people in their cubicles as he walked by, and people were feeling very uncomfortable about it.

By no means is staring just a business problem. I first became aware of it as a gym etiquette issue when I was writing Essential Manners for Men (Harper 2003, 2nd Edition 2012). I heard repeatedly from women about the annoyance and even anger they felt when a guy stared at them as they worked out. Gym clothes can be baggy or they can be tight fitting and not leave much to the imagination. Then there are tattoos. I’ve always thought that if a person has a visible tattoo, that they should expect other people to take a moment and look at it.

My first experience with the tattoo came in a yoga class. The young woman in front of me had a large tattoo on her back which was partially covered by her top. As an art history major in college, I was familiar with Matisse’s The Dance. There it was, or so I thought, squarely on her back. I looked, several times. But that’s the real point here: I looked. Discreetly. When her back was turned to me. I even thought about it and made the effort not to let my look turn into a stare.

What’s the difference? When you look at something or at a person as you glance around, your focus stays with you and what you are doing. When you stop thinking about what you are doing and your eyes and your conscious mind focus like a laser beam on the person you are looking at, your look becomes a stare. And the other person? She (or he) realizes she is the object of your stare. And that’s when you’ve crossed the line.

For my friend in New York, she’s right: The person walking by the cubicles is staring, not looking. His focus is on the person in the cubicle and he is making that person uncomfortable. Time to stop staring and start looking.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers' questions in The Boston Sunday Globe's weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business" and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book "Essential Manners For Men" was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of "Essential Manners for Couples," "Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf," and co-author of "A Wedding Like No Other." Post is Emily Post's great-grandson. His media appearances include "CBS Sunday Morning," CBS's "The Early Show," NBC's "Today," ABC's "Good Morning America," and "Fox News."

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