What’s Wrong with Me?
“Why is everyone staring at me?!” used to pass through my mind several times a day the last time in lived in Europe. My eyes would by chance meet those of strangers on trams, on the street and at cafes on a daily basis, and I quickly noticed that on almost every occasion, my onlooker’s eyes stayed fixed on me longer than the length of time I was comfortable with. I couldn’t help but feel a little more self-conscious than usual, and seeing that it was happening every time I left the confines of my apartment or office, that translated into a lot of introspection!
Fast forward 13 years later, and here I am again, garnering the same looks in a different country that has some things in common with my formerly adopted second home of Croatia. But now my cage isn’t rattled; I take what my US-self would identify as “gazing” as an everyday fact of life. How did I get to this place mentally?
There’s Nothing Wrong with Me
Maybe you’ll call it armchair psychology, America-bashing, wishful thinking or something else. I admit I might be completely off-base with the following verbose hypothesis, but it jibes with what other US expats have experienced and how they’ve made sense of the phenomenon. If anyone feels inclined to shoot me down on this, just drop a thoughtful comment on this post.
After getting over my hangup with prolonged eye contact during my first stint in Mitteleuropa, I started to notice that locals, both here in Vienna and in Croatia as well, do the same thing to each other. The neutral stare, not seeming to pass judgement but rather to determine who and what you are, is commonplace. When strangers’ eyes meet, people here tend not to immediately look away. They don’t necessarily experience that sense of awkwardness. They are undaunted in their evaluation of you, and it’s normal for you to do the same in return.
Looking Alienation in the Eye
So why is this not “a thing” in the US? On the surface, it’s simply impolite to stare (or, do what people in the US would define as staring). Underneath that charm of simplicity, though I suspect lies an ugly aspect of life in the US: Profound Loneliness.
“I don’t want s/he to think I’m into them,” or “they may think I’m weird” are some of the things I’ve thought in my prior life in the US whenever my eyes would coincidentally make contact with another person’s, hence the immediate glance into another direction. If others think similarly, it explains why (at least according to my observations) in the US so many people have their attention directed to the ground or floor when in public transport. God forbid you make coincidental eye contact with a stranger and have to deal with the fact that another being, just like you, currently occupies the same space! Oh, the horror!
Despite the ick factor that still sometimes makes the American in me uncomfortable in such high-eye-contact-potential situations, I try to force myself to keep my chin up, meet others’ eyes and not shy away from the steady looks of my fellow denizens. Rather than overthink why a person might be looking at me, or what s/he may think of my looking at him or her, I take it as a sign of acknowledgement: Acknowledgement that I am, and that the other person across from me is as well. Simple as that.