Staring: Is It Really Rude, Or a Secret to Success?

stories & musings
title graphic for Hillary Weiss blog post titled staring: is it really rude or a secret to success.

So basically: most birds hate me.

That’s not an exaggeration.

I could regale you at length with bizarre stories of every bird I’ve ever held sinking its beak into my hand at some point.

Or about that time a scarlet macaw absolutely lost its ish on its perch at Petsmart as I approached, doing flips over and over while screaming at the top of its lungs, its pupils rapidly expanding and contracting.

(Shortly afterward, a nervous 16 year old employee told me I should probably leave. I obliged.)

Seriously, it’s all fun and games until a goose or swan at the park starts hissing at me, and my husband has to get between us and escort me to a safe location.

Party Fowl!

And yeah yeah — I’m pretty sure at this point it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Maybe birds can sense my discomfort and fear and respond in kind. Maybe some of them DID like me but I just lost it when they tried to give me a love nibble because those beaks are sharp, yo.

But as a kid? This degree of bird hate really bugged me.

Why did this particular pillar of the animal kingdom just have it out for me? I had done nothing to inspire bird ire!

I have this really distinct memory of my older sister and I discussing it on a park bench over fruit rollups when I was around 8, the backs of our thighs sticking to the heated plastic of the seats in the summer sun.

“Maybe they don’t like the way you stare,” she said thoughtfully.

Ah. Right.

Maybe that was it.

“It’s Not Polite to Stare”

See, as a kid, I was a notoriously bug-eyed examiner of all things.

The world fascinated me in a way I still haven’t really gotten over. I’d stare at people’s clothes, their hands, the way they walked or did their work. I’d watch their foreheads and the pores around the edges of their noses and the way their mouths moved when they were laughing and concentrating, and the colors of the stitches in their irises.

I’d pepper them with questions about how and why they did things, trying to inscribe them into my memory bank — which was then an uncomfortably wide open vault.

It was my way of trying to learn, and trying to get a read on the 7 Layers of What Was Really Going On inside their heads, and by association the bigger world.

(It’s the same reason I’d sneak over to the adults table to listen in on grown up problems, like taxes and politics and gardening and the HOA. I was impatient to understand the ways of the world, the more tedious the better.)

As you might imagine, I heard “It’s not polite to stare,” a lot.

But no one really told me… why.

You Say Bug-Eyed Creeper – I Say Curious Entrepreneur

Overall I assumed that sometimes people don’t want to be peered at. Especially not by a little kid!

And sometimes people also didn’t want to answer questions — especially not around what they’re doing and why. No one is required to open the cloak of their public persona to us and reveal what’s underneath.

(But honestly… that often just motivated me to look closer, and ask more. If they were hiding something, it must be particularly interesting, right?)

However, over the years, I managed to taper my staring.

I’d focus my eyes on the floor or the wall while I listened as hard as I possibly could, and I’d concentrate on their tone and their body language to get a read if they were game for me to machine-gun them with my curiosity.

When it came to the online and business world, I assumed the same rules applied.

Look, but don’t let anyone know you looked too hard.

Stare so you can study… but if that person finds out how hard you were trying to pick apart WHY their email or sales page or offer worked so well on you, they’d probably feel mega uncomfortable, right?

That Day Someone Looked Back

As insulated as the folks who appeared on my screens and in my inbox were from my incessant IRL need to peer intently at everything, my eagerness to always dig for the subtext (and potential strategic step-by-steps) was always accompanied by the worry that someone might discover I was looking for them… and chase me away like an angry goose.

There’s a socialized shame, I think, in determined curiosity. It’s part of why transparency has always been a brand value for me. I want to answer the questions you’re too afraid to ask before you need to work up all that courage to ask them.

As a result, as adults I think perhaps we glide too smoothly through life facing forward, bent on living and breathing the assumption that anything worth knowing can be gleaned from a passing glance or hours spent poring over books and programs, with little in between.

So imagine my surprise when one day, someone stared back at me.

I was sitting on a mastermind call with friends, and was sharing the results of a strategy I’d had a ton of fun testing.

One of the participants — the most successful of all of us, at that time — did something I’d never see a person do so shamelessly.

Maybe Staring Is Rude, but Paying Attention is Very, Very Polite

She leaned forward and looked unblinkingly straight into the camera:

“Wait wait. Slow down,” she grabbed a pen.

“Can you break up how you did that? What steps did you take?”

I looked left. I look right.

Wait a minute wait a minute wait a minute.

Super Successful Lady wants to know this from ME?

Also: doesn’t she know it’s not polite to stare?

Also also: doesn’t she know she might anger the birds???

But, when a grown up didn’t appear in the zoom room to shush her and tell her it was rude to ask… I realized I was genuinely excited to answer.

And so I did.

Reflecting on that moment in the days that followed, I wondered if that was the most refreshing thing anyone in the industry had said to me in years.

Of course there are folks in the online biz sphere who would chide me for giving my personal strategies away like dishes compliments of the chef.

“Gotta make ‘em pay for that!” they’d tell me.

And my own endlessly curious nature has also NOT stopped me from putting up a boundary that no, you can’t take me out for coffee and pick my brain any time you like.

Curiosity Killed the Cat, But Satisfaction Brought it Back

But being asked, so outright and shamelessly, for a detailed look at what had really been going on woke up the little girl within me who was always told it’s not polite to stare with a start.

“I KNEW IT!!!!” she declared

In the time that’s flown by since, I’ve spotted this pattern at play in basically all of the most successful people I’ve met in the industry.

They’re not afraid to stare.

They’re not afraid to buy you a drink at the conference and ask you about that thing you did.

They’re not embarrassed about wanting to know — because knowing is how they grow and progress.

They invest in uncovering the answers, yes, but they’ve also outgrown, or outwitted, their shame in asking questions and revealing their gaps, and their fear of being seen as “uncool” or “behind”.

To Sum Up: Being Honestly Curious Is Very, Very Smart

Their education is ever-continuing. The world is their oyster of discovery and nothing will stop them from noisily cracking the shells to dig out the meat.

So, while my story of fraught human/bird relations continues, I don’t think the staring was the problem after all.

Maybe birds hate me because of the shape of my face or the way I smell or my general concern about being on the business end of their prehistoric torture devices known as beaks and talons.

But not the looking.

Not the staring.

Not the wanting to know.

That’s just one of those gifts and tools that some people like, and others don’t.

Our fear of appearing not to know creates empty chasms that only our honest curiosity has the power to fill.

The most successful people stare, and ask, and aren’t afraid to dig (while also being, hopefully, respectful when they are told no.)

So the question becomes:

Honestly, why shouldn’t you?

“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more.

Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”

(Walker Evans)

Write on,

Photo by Ignacio Amenábar on Unsplash

Like what you see?

Sign up and never miss another post (and get a crazy cool freebie)

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.