Today is the day my husband wears his kilt, actually a Utilikilt which makes the walks and other adventures we have on Sundays very entertaining because people always stare. Never mind that the Germans seem to have a thing with staring; I think my husband is toying with the German public on Sundays. He likes to see them stare, perhaps liking to make them question what they are seeing. We are expats after all, so we do admittedly get our ‘kicks’ in different ways.
No matter where we go in town, without fail, people blatantly stare. I find this both somewhat disturbing and equally hilarious at the same time. There seems to be an unspoken rule in American culture that perhaps would be nice if it were passed onto the Germans, or at least the Germans from the region in which we live.
This unspoken rule, as you might have guessed, has to do with staring at others. We all do it, it happens! You know, it’s early in the morning and your commuting on your way to class or to work, or perhaps in the line for a coffee, it can happen to us any time of day really. We see someone we fancy, for whatever reason, or we’re thinking about an upcoming vacation, class, exam, presentation, etc…and we get caught. We happen to realize we were staring directly at someone…and they now have noticed and our eyes lock. “Oh shit!” is the natural reaction and we quickly look away or down at our shoes. Alternatively, we might smile at them, acknowledging our situation but still, after a moment we do usually look away. Locking eyes once is really all it takes, that’s the rule. Your off somewhere in your own head but your eyes have different plans and next thing you know whomever you are looking at realizes that you are looking and that’s it, game over – no more staring.
This rule does not in any way shape or form seem to apply here. Yes, I understand that a man wearing a ‘skirt’ might look a little funny and it would also garner looks in the US too. Albeit not so much in Portland as the Utilikilt company has done some decent business there, but that might also be because the company is based in Seattle. However, it doesn’t matter how many times you meet eyes with someone here, they don’t stop staring. You have to simply stare back for them to look away. In fact, you cannot simply stare until they look away, you must actually stare back at them for a few seconds after they look away because they might just look back! Yeah, I know this seems like crazy talk, but it is true!
I am not the first expat to notice, in fact on the German expat site ‘Toytown Germany’, this topic is so popular, it is 35 pages long! In looking for research on this topic I found another forum, this one for military community in Kaiserslautern and basically arguing similar points. Others are also noticing, in spite of the fact that many Germans don’t believe us when we explain this situation to them. A great blog I just recently discovered, by Mark F. Weber, titled “My German Travels” also talks about this briefly, offering something of a language lesson and then a possible reason, flirting. I don’t necessarily agree but I plan to come back to the site to examine other parts of the culture he discusses. Another blogger, Elena Cresci, also wrote about this in 2010 in her post, “German Wednesdays” arguing that perhaps, at least for her it was the fact that she was speaking English. A commenter on her page responded with the fact that Germans like being direct and looking people in the eyes when they are speaking. This is true, but also of Americans in my opinion, and not what I am talking about here. At any rate this topic is in fact so topical, there is even a Facebook page devoted to it.
In fact, as late as 1988, a scientist, named Rupert Sheldrake were attempting to prove that the ability to detect the stare has to do with ‘Morphic Resonance‘ meaning basically in a collective unconscious awareness, similar to C.G. Jung‘s ideas on the subject. Sheldrake believes that all things offer a sort of collective memory to the ‘next generation’ which is passed down essentially through genetic code. This idea has often been met with harsh criticism from the science community but resonate well with general public. One critic argued the criticism comes from not accurately and appropriately being able to reproduce the situations which might cause people to stare. Perhaps they should conduct their experiments in Germany!
Der Spiegel argues that this staring is due, at least in part, to those many years either under the Stasi, “All this gawking does have a historical basis. A less-than-peaceful 20th century made Germans especially keen to know all they could about potentially dangerous –- or endangered –- neighbors. And under communism in East Germany, millions were reporting to the Staatssicherheit — or Stasi — on their neighbors’ comings and goings (Der Spiegel).” This might explain the reasoning behind the older people staring and peeping into your business, but what about everyone else? I argue that ultimately it is culturalization, or growing up with different cultural standards imposed on us by society and our communities while also having something to do with space (which I will attempt to cover in another blog).
Last weekend we were walking along the river and had to stop at a cross walk. Before we could walk, the turn signal had to change from green to red. While we waited I counted at least fifteen cars pass where, when present in the vehicle, the passenger stared at my husband every time. Today as we were walking to our friends to have dinner, many people were out on the Hauptmarkt enjoying the surprising Autumn late afternoon sun. I caught so many people staring while eating their ice cream and staring back didn’t seem to help. We even passed by a whole group, of roughly thirty women, involved in some city walking tour, who all turned to gawk at my husband as we walked passed.
Of course, in their defense, in spite of the sun, it is Autumn and the temperature has dropped so my husband has once again pulled out his big, black wool coat to wear and was also wearing a sweater that happened to be the same color as the kilt. I think many people might have thought that he looked like a Russian granny wearing a dress. Which made us laugh both with and at the gawkers.
On a completely different note, Sunday is also my ‘blog day’ but all day long I was trying to think of something I could write about…in my opinion I just have too many things to say. So, the problem is actually trying to narrow down the choices.
*I like to talk about these things I notice with my friends but especially my students. It is a very fun topic!
**People that wear Utilikilts are likely to literally punch you if they overhear you saying ‘skirt’. I use it in this blogpost because I believe that is what the people who are staring at my husband are thinking.