Staring Problem

Staring Problem

At daycare when I was five, another kid named Diana turned to me near the swings and said, “Do you have a staring problem?” I was embarrassed and likely either didn’t reply or said something awkward . . . but as I’ve replayed the memory in my mind over the years, I’ve decided that my response should have been, “yeah, definitely.” So what if I love people watching.

Time would lead me to form a significant bond with the coming-of-age comedy “Harriet the Spy”, which prompted me to keep a spy journal that I took semi-seriously for about a year. During recess, if I wasn’t building fairy houses in the tall grass with my best friend, playing kickball, or swinging, I would be posted up somewhere recording my thoughts and feelings about the world and people around me.

Over time, my people watching has evolved. For many years now, I have involuntarily practiced a mental exercise where when I’m in a grocery store, park, library, or similar space, I will sometimes focus my attention on observing the people around me. I like to take in what I can about body language and social interactions, noticing mannerisms, expressions, style, tone, gestures, etc. I think about how some people are having good days, while others are experiencing the opposite. I consider how many people (all of us?) are likely living in a space between good and bad. I think about how many people we pass by as we go through our days. On the road and sidewalks, in hallways and aisles. This leads me to reflect on how we are all unique individuals leading complex lives, how we all have so many stories we could share, and how many stories we will never hear. I think about how wrong any of my assumptions about someone’s life might be, often recalling the words “when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me” in my mind.

While sure, people watching is entertaining to me, it extends beyond that. It’s less of an investigation and more of a way to open myself up to the details of my surroundings and learn about humanity and myself in my reactions to what I observe. It helps me remain in the moment and helps keep it teachable. It helps to slow me down, and keeps me connected to the big, wide world around me, rather than buried in the isolating world of my phone screen.

So, I do have a staring problem. And I’m okay with it and know I’m not alone. Fellow people watchers, what can you share about your experiences?

Holding you in my heart on this somber day,


  1. Hannah Nelson

    Thank you Sara! I have the opposite problem! I have trouble looking at people, and did not realize it until I was in college doing a theatre exercise/study on holding eye contact. I thought I was doing a good job and then all of the sudden my teacher calls on me and says “Hannah! Hold your eye contact!” And suddenly I realized I had been breaking eye contact well before the time we were supposed to for the exercise. But all that time I thought I was doing it correctly until someone called me out.

  2. Suzi G

    Definitely can relate. My issue is that I was so socially oblivious as a kid that I wasn’t aware that people could tell I was staring. Now, as an adult, I’m so distractible with ADHD that I don’t always pay attention to where I’m looking. Thanks for the inspirational piece.

  3. Gail Thompson

    When was a child, my mother and I would use buses for shopping. While waiting for the next bus, we would watch people and make up stories about their lives. So yes I too have a staring problem. It does keep me in the here and now but also in the imagination. Thank you Sara for sharing. It makes the world less lonely.

  4. John Guy

    Hello Sara and Hannah and Gail – All three of you aroused my curiosity about the words stare and eye contact – A brief romp through Google definitions left me with distinct variations of the process of looking a person in the eyes. Stare can also mean looking through a person versus looking to understand a person .versus undetected looking at a person wondering about what that person’s role in life is. In my career as a professional executive I learned quickly that if you really wanted to have a constructive conversation with a person eye to eye contact with an attitude of listening and understanding was absolutely essential . I especially found that skill most of the times led to positive resolution on whatever the issue was with that person . .Cultivating the eye to eye skill really made me a more effective executive. Ditto any person to person conversation on most subjects. Many thanks ladies.

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