Prompt: Go to a coffee shop with a notebook, order some coffee and sit down. Find someone in the room to stare at for two minutes or until they look back. Write a one or more page response on how they reacted and how it made you feel to do this.
For this research activity, I went to a café close to my work during my lunch hour. About one-quarter full of people, I choose a small table in the back of the café. The first thing that I noticed as I began to observe people was that everyone seemed focused on something else. People were engrossed in their conversations with their table mates, were heavily involved in introspection, or were glued to their laptops or smartphones. This being the case it was difficult to find someone to stare at who would even look up from their activities. I actually ended up staring at two different people. I wanted to see if they would react differently or similarly.
For my first case, I chose a woman who faced me while she was standing in line to order. I stared at her for about 45 seconds and once she realized I was staring at her she smiled at me. This smile was a surprising but pleasant reaction. I’m not sure if she smiled because my face looked harmless and/or happy, if she was trying to stop my staring, or if she is just a genuinely happy person. My best guess is that she was trying to stop my staring. I smiled back at her but am not sure if she saw as she quickly looked away after smiling at me.
For my second case, I chose a young woman who sitting at a table across the room but directly in my line of eyesight. I had to stare at her for more than two minutes and was afraid that she wouldn’t look up from her phone but eventually she did. She stared straight back at me as I stared at her. At first, I wondered if she was trying to figure out if I was staring directly at her or out the window that was behind her. After she continued to stare at me, I realized that she was returning my stare. I kept expecting her to look away but she didn’t. I think we stared at each other for about a good minute before I broke the uncomfortable eye contact. I did notice that after I had looked away from her she continued to stare at me for a few more minutes and then, began writing notes on her device. I don’t know if she was texting about the “rude” person who was staring at her, or perhaps, she was participating in the same experiment as me, unlikely though.
This exercise made me extremely uncomfortable. I prefer to stay unnoticed in the background around strangers and with this exercise, I had to consciously leave my comfort zone. I feared that the people I was staring at would cause a scene once they realized what I was doing and that they would approach my table. I abhor confrontations with strangers; therefore, I deliberately chose people who were not in close proximity to my table to help counter those worries. I was surprised more so by the second person’s reaction than the first. Going into this exercise, I didn’t expect the person to not only return my stare but also stare me down! The activity was an unexpected way to measure in the moment perceptions and the resulting behaviors, but I think I’ll take a break from staring at strangers.