Staring at different-looking people…

CreditCreditGraham Roumieu


What Different-Looking People Would Like You to Know Before You Stare

A little boy sees a bald man in the store. “Mommy, look! That man has no hair!” he says.

His mother grabs his arm and whispers urgently: “Be quiet! He might hear you!”

The boy looks at his mother, puzzled. “Doesn’t he know?”

There’s a lot going on in that old joke — about children and novelty, about unusual looks, about parenting and tact.

At the end of the previous “Crowdwise,” I invited people who describe themselves as looking different — people who are very large or small, who are visibly disabled, who have distinctive features — to share their thoughts with the public. How should strangers react? Look away? Smile? Is it O.K. to ask questions?

And the big one: Should curious children be shushed?

Readers responded with incredible honesty, good will and wisdom.

Without reading another word, you can probably guess the answer to the question: “Is it O.K. to stare?”

Cathy Theisen has a neurological movement disorder called cervical dystonia, in which her muscles pull her head to her left shoulder and her chin to the right. “I don’t mind an occasional look, but a stare or a double take is uncomfortable,” she wrote. “Why not meet my eye and smile, like you should when your path crosses another human being’s path?”

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“Your brain is wired to notice differences right away, and it’s very good at its job. I get it,” wrote Jen Kendall. She and her husband Dave are both little people — they have the same type of dwarfism as Peter Dinklage (achondroplasia). “But where you take it after that split second is entirely on you:

  • “Seeing me and then elbowing your neighbor is rude. (I’m still a person, not an animal or freak to be gawked at.)

  • “Seeing me and then looking over my head until I pass you, and then turning around for a second look is rude. (You assume we’re stupid and oblivious.)

  • “Seeing me and then sharply looking away as soon as we make eye contact is rude. (‘I can’t see you! You’re invisible and don’t exist!’)

If you do make eye contact, “Just smile to let me know that you have no ill will, and move on. Please, for the love, don’t keep staring. That’s super weird.”

“Best case scenario, pretend to ignore it,” confirmed Hannah Herzog. “If you can’t manage that, then ask me The Question. Above all else, avoid staring — or even worse, the ‘stare and look away.’ It serves no purpose. You still have questions, and I now feel like a freak.”

What really bugs my correspondents is hearing the same unoriginal remarks, day in and day out.

“I’m pretty tall — 6’8,” wrote John Jarosz. “Can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked how tall I am when I’m out in public. Been asked about 1 million times if I play basketball. And it doesn’t end there. I’ll get additional info on some relative who’s very tall, as if I would find that interesting.”

Emily Orbert has used a wheelchair since she was 21, and has heard “every joke out there about Speed Racer and speeding tickets,” she wrote. “Definitely don’t ask me what happened, or tell me I’m too pretty for a wheelchair, or tell me you are proud of me, or ‘good for you’ when I do something as simple as picking up a dropped object.”

“What’s annoying,” added Ellen H, who is six feet tall, “is that people seem comfortable commenting on my appearance as soon as they meet me: ‘Wow, you’re big!’ ‘How tall are you?’ ‘Do you play basketball?’ What I would like is for people to say nothing about my appearance. Greet me as if I’m 5’6!”

Another correspondent, who is very petite, hears a different vein of remarks. “Many people seem to think it’s a compliment to comment on how tiny I am. Women especially seem to think it’s flattering to comment on my size. But I’ve struggled in the past with my relationship to food. Commenting on my size, even as a compliment, is triggering for me.”

In many cases, the bad behavior my correspondents witness is no different from the bad behavior anybody witnesses. “People are people,” said Ms. Kendall. “Some are delightful to have a conversation with, and some are socially unaware and ask very private and personal questions — no matter who you are.”

Another woman, who is small enough that she buys children’s clothes, wrote that “I’ve had a boss lift me up off the ground in front of other people. It made me feel small and powerless and childlike. It’s never appropriate to lift an adult off the floor at work, unless you work at Cirque du Soleil.”

You may be quietly horrified by these exhibits in the Tactlessness Hall of Fame, but even well-meaning people can make life difficult — by stepping in to help, unbidden.

“If you want to help me, please ask, ‘Would it be helpful if …?’, and understand if I decline your offer,” wrote Ms. Obert.


People try to help, Ms. Kendall theorized, “to let me know that they’re an ally of sorts. That’s very kind, but inserting yourself can sometimes feel like pity. I don’t feel sorry for myself, so you don’t have to either.”

The bottom line: “In general, people with disabilities know their limits and will ask for assistance if needed.”

Often enough, it’s not the person who’s the subject of public curiosity — it’s their walkers, wheelchairs, scooters, and support dogs.

“Unless you are my husband or my best friend, please don’t touch my chair,” advised Ms. Obert. “If your child is staring or is touching my wheelchair (toddlers love wheels), you don’t have to panic. Gently move them away. Let them know that wheelchairs help some people move around in the world, and we don’t touch them because it’s like touching part of someone’s body.”

Anne Jones is 90 and uses a walker. In general, she noted that “people are very understanding and helpful. But in their efforts to be helpful, they often try to pull the walker away from me to put it where they, not I, think it needs to be.” Ms. Jones has sometimes fallen as a result. “I appreciate their intended help, but safety comes first!”

Helen Eschenbacher spent so much time explaining her reasons for using a service dog that she printed up explanation cards, which she hands to inquisitive strangers.

Trouble is, her dog’s red vest is covered with signs that say, “Service Dog: Please don’t pet,” but many people don’t seem to care. “EVERYONE comes up and grabs or pets my dog: ‘What a cute puppy!’” she wrote. “I’ve had grown-ups fall to their knees on the floor and hug my dog hard!”

(A service dog’s job is to keep the owner safe. Petting distracts the dog, preventing him or her from doing the job, such as — in Ms. Eschenbacher’s case — being alert to imminent seizures.)

When she asks them not to pet her dog, “People get pissed. ‘Well, why can’t I pet it?!’” she wrote. “I’ve been told, ‘You’re terrible to make a dog work!’—or, ‘You’re so LUCKY to be able to take your dog everywhere!’”

“I’m 6’6 and I get daily comments about my height,” wrote Chris Malek. “But all kids under 6 get a pass.”

Children are fascinated by novelty, but also inexperienced in social graces. Therefore, Ms. Kendall noted, “it is almost always O.K. for a kid to ask questions. They’re curious and direct, and that’s normal!”

Therefore, she wrote, “Please don’t ever drag your child away, or try to pretend we aren’t there. That’s very hurtful. A simple hello or ‘Yes! Can you say hi?’ is as far as it needs to go.”

Trav Walkowski wrote that his pale skin, marked by “a lot of red pigment in places that get sun — like a permanent mild sunburn,” also attracts a lot of attention from children.

“It’s super annoying when the parents pull them aside to tell them not to say such things. I say, no! Let them be kids. It’s the parents making it a thing that makes it uncomfortable or embarrassing. Suddenly that thing that they totally accepted 30 seconds ago is now taboo.”

“A person with an obvious disability is not surprised when they find you looking at them. They are used to it,” concluded Jen Kendall. “We’ve heard it all, and are experts at deflecting. I take almost nothing personally.”

Some unusual-looking people take that art to a high level — like Scott Peckenpaugh, who was born with three fingers (two fingers and a thumb) on each hand. “People asking about it doesn’t bother me. When they stare but DON’T say anything, I start gesturing wildly and watch their eyes follow my hands. Hilarious,” he tweeted. “Children are wonderful: they’re just fascinated by it.”

To the little boy in the bald-man joke, we now have an answer: Yes, people who look different know it. But they deserve courtesy in the same amounts anybody does. As Ms. Kendall put it: “We’re people first, just like anyone else.”

In the next “Crowdwise”: Privacy has become a hot topic. There’s fear in the land — that big tech companies are watching us, tracking us, targeting us with ads. But how can we avoid leaving tracks, when everything we do — traveling, shopping, calling and texting, using the internet, using credit cards — leaves invisible digital records?

Do your fellow citizens a favor: Share your best tips — the less well-known, the better — for protecting your privacy without massive inconvenience to by August 30.


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