What are you staring at?

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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 the main 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. However, as I have come to discover while living in Germany, the last on our list is positively encouraged. There are times I can understand why people are staring at me, living in a small village and speaking English in public might lead to the locals having a quick glance. Wearing an England football top might lead to some curious looks, or during most international football tournaments, a look of pity. I have also on occasion caught my older neighbours peeking out from behind their net curtains as I go to and from work. This is to be expected of the elderly of any nation, I mean why watch soap operas when the greatest interactive soap of all time is only a curtain twitch away? What I do have a problem with is what I can only term ‘the German intensive laser stare’.

This specialised stare is not left in reserve, it is to be used with extreme prejudice at any and all times. What marks this social peccadillo out as slightly odd is that you don’t even have to be doing anything peculiar for the lasers to be activated. When I first moved here I began to get fly down paranoia, that is to say I encountered so many stares that I instantly thought I must be flying low and was thus forced to check. This in turn must have been worthy of a good stare as to the innocent bystander there was some lunatic wandering around checking his nuts every two metres. It was like some terrible zipper based feedback loop.

Minor personal embarrassment aside, there are certainly other times where a prolonged stare can leave a newcomer slightly confused. I have walked into a number of bars with my girlfriend only to be faced with a wall of eyes peering back at us. 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. Not in Germany. A quick laser stare and then back to whatever conversation was occurring before my arrival.

Speaking of bars, I would be remiss not to mention that an important feature of German drinking etiquette is the ‘prost stare’. This unique stare is initiated when saying prost (German for cheers) and while clinking glasses everyone must 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 your with twenty or so people and you inevitably 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. Maybe all the people who stare are government surveillance robots, insuring the safety of the populace by monitoring possible threats, like the Geordie guy (me) 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. Perhaps you might make a new friend or worst case scenario you get killed by a robot.

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