Think back to when you were 5 years old and saw something you didn’t quite understand. Maybe it was a woman with bluish hair, or maybe a man in a wheelchair. Odds are you probably stared. Then your mom told you it was impolite to stare, and you learned your lesson.
No matter how beautiful, different, strange or grotesque something is, in the U.S. you can only stare when it’s been trapped behind glass and deemed appropriate to view.
In Italy, that was a lesson no one learned. At first I thought it was just me because I looked so blatantly American. Then, after a couple of weeks, Italians approached me to ask for directions or to start a conversation. I would stare blankly, secretly proud of being mistaken for a local, and say, “Mi dispiace, non parlo Italiano.”
During one of our introductory meetings, my adviser, an Italian named Sasha, told me that staring is just something Romans do.
“When I first moved to Rome, I was taller than a lot of people, so I was stared at,” he said. “If you’re different, and sometimes if you’re not, people will stare.”
My roommates didn’t buy it, and after the first few weeks they had an “I’m fed up with Italy” session at our kitchen table.
“It’s so rude how people stare,” they whined. “I feel so uncomfortable.”
Then I imagined what it would be like to come from a culture where no one had ever smacked me on the shoulder and told me to stop staring. In the U.S., I can’t even stare at beautiful people, let alone old ladies with bright red lipstick or crazy people shouting to themselves on street corners. It’s “rude.”
But the truth is there is no rule setting behavior in stone and dictating good and bad. It’s just different. And in Italy, one major difference is the perception of awkwardness. On the bus, I can have staring contests with strangers and it’s not weird. I can stare at chic women or men in oversized sunglasses, and no one gets up in arms.
I reminded my roommates of this. Then I told them to imagine how much more fun their childhood would have been if they’d been allowed to stare at the things that fascinated them.
All in all, the staring business has ceased to bother me, and I barely even notice or care anymore. I like to think they stare because I’m different and beautiful, and they need the extra couple of moments to take it all in. If it’s because I’m hideous, well, I suppose that’s just a matter of taste. And tastes are simply different.
Liz Taddonio is a junior culture and communication major. E-mail her at email@example.com.