Perfecting the Bostonian Stink Eye

There’s nothing quite like a Monday morning. Determined to press forward with a good attitude, despite limited sleep and still longing for the comfort that is my pillow, I decide I will conquer the Monday morning blues. And then, I step off the subway and I am greeted by none other than the high heels and designer knockoff suit worn by someone adept at doling out the Boston Stink Eye!

Tour books of the Boston area are generally missing an important section – that of explaining the Boston stink eye. While old buildings, history, beautiful parks, and glimpses of Betsy Ross are part of the Boston experience, it will be the odd visitor that doesn’t also experience what I call the stink eye. To be sure, other places may have this, but they certainly haven’t perfected it the way the Bostonian has.

To explain the stink eye, I would love a video clip. There is, in fact, an online dictionary entry (not limiting the eye to Boston) that describes it this way: “a facial expression of disgust, disdain, or disapproval” but I’d like to expand on that limited definition.  It’s a particular look and it comes in two ways. One is when the eyes of someone are staring right at you, but through you, as though you don’t exist. You are, in a moment, reduced to an ant that can be squished. The second is more obvious – the eyes begin at your feet and slowly travel up your body with disdain, stopping to make eye contact, curl the lips and go back down the body again. It is not pretty. While both types hurt, the latter has the ability to fluster more and sometimes reduces the recipient to tears.

For a long time I thought it was me. That somehow I had that peculiar ability to bring out mockery or disdain. I questioned what I was doing wrong and wondered how I could keep up with the unspoken rules of Boston. And then I realized something big. It isn’t me! It’s part of Boston. Along with the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, New England Clam Chowder, coastal beauty, Paul Revere, the North End, and the State House – it’s as much a part of Boston as those more lovely and picturesque things.

So what to do with the stink eye? Passers through can cope because their focus is on other things, but for those of us that move here and, like damn Yankees, stay, it is a more difficult dilemma. The old saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans” or “If you can’t beat them, join them”  and there you have it. I have learned with the best of them and I now know how to give a good old self-esteem reducing Boston stink eye.  Scary, isn’t it? I never thought I would stoop to this, but it’s survival of the fittest and fit I have become.

The good news about all this is that I never, ever use this on tourists and visitors. I reserve it for the Bostonian. The more Bostonian they seem, the better my stink-eye. Critics may condemn, but only until they have experienced this for themselves. After that we’ll talk.

A World Removed

My youngest brother Dan, and his wife, Carol, are in the country of Chad. They have gone there for meetings where my brother is a featured speaker, and Carol is working with others to hold a children’s program.

If you look at a map of Africa, Chad is right in the center. Until 1960 Chad was part of France’s “Africa holdings”. At that time it achieved independence and has gone through decades of civil war, threats and invasions from Libya located on its northern borders, and sporadic rebellions from within. In this land-locked country, three times larger than the state of California, there are multiple ethnic groups, religions, and social inequities. Female life expectancy is 49 years and male 47, so only about 3 percent of the population is over age 64. Latest reports bring news of a cholera epidemic hitting central Africa with Chad being one of the countries most severely affected.

In a short email to my brother this morning I asked how they were doing and gave some basic news, ending with the information that tonight I am going to a fashion-show at an élite hotel in Boston as a fundraiser for breast cancer research and treatment. I stopped in the middle of typing. It is such a stark contrast to the world that they are currently experiencing. It is mind-boggling. I am going to a sequins and silk event at a cost of seventy-five dollars a ticket (I am invited by a generous friend to go for free). We will sip on cocktails in a beautiful lobby at the Liberty Hotel, a historic building that was originally the Charles Street Jail and is now turned into a luxury hotel. After cocktails and mingling, we will go to a fashion show and swoon over a designers creations. I ended the email saying “It’s a world removed from where you are, and what you are doing”. And it is.

I am again reminded that in one part of the world extreme poverty and problems are constant, even as in another place, an elegant fashion show, complete with music and soft lights, is being held. Even more striking, in one part of the city a meal for the homeless will be served out of large metal pots, while in another, white- coated waiters will offer appetizers to a well-dressed crowd.

I’ve experienced both worlds and one thing I know is that in both places there are hearts that are empty and longing. Your belly and wallet can be full, while your heart and soul, hidden by the façade of silk and velvet, are empty and crying out for meaning. A world removed? In some ways yes, in others not at all.

Have you experienced both worlds? What is your response to the contrast?

Guest Post from Little Gumnut: “A One-Kiss Culture”

Little Gumnut – a favorite blogger has some great observations about greetings across cultures. To kiss or not to kiss? Read on and join the conversation!

Whenever I’m saying hello or goodbye to old friends or new, that awkward moment constantly pops up.  You know the one don’t you?  The one where you’re never quite sure whether you’re on hugging or kissing terms. If you go in for a kiss on the cheek, will they consider that over-familiar?

There’s this peculiar, awkward little dance where your head tilts to once side,  you don’t quite know what to do with your hands, you bob back and forward, each one hesitating, watching the other one’s body language for clues as to what is the socially accepted norm for this specific situation until one person decides to go for the plunge and either walks away giving a little wave, thrusts out their hand for a handshake, pulls you in for a hug or, the worst situation, you misunderstand the direction their head is going in and clunk heads/noses/glasses.

North Americans are easy.  They’re very affectionate and its hugs or a cheery wave goodbye.Brits could get offended if you get too familiar though.  If you go in for a peck on the cheek and they’re not family and you’ve only met them a few times, they might back off like a horse shying away from a jump it doesn’t want to take.

The French have simplified it the most and everyone, without fail goes in for la bise.  A quick peck on the cheek.  The only thing complicated about it is how many you go for and that is dependent on where you come from in France and what your family custom is.  Generally it’s two, even if you’re just being introduced to the person that minute but it could be anything between one and four kisses.  It sounds more complicated than it is.  Everyone starts off turning their cheek to their left side and taking cues from the other person as to how many they expect.

Perhaps its a little odd the thought of kissing a complete stranger but once you get into the swing of it, it takes all the awkwardness of saying hello and goodbye and the question of physical touch out of it.

Aussie’s and Kiwis I’m most bemused about.  It seems to be a One-Kiss Culture, but only if there’s no-one you’re not on one-kiss terms with.  And exactly are one-kiss terms is a subject of considerable confusion for me.

Is it based on the level of friendship you feel for them?  Is it based on whether anyone you don’t know is present or not? Is it rude to kiss your friend goodbye but wave goodbye or shake hands to the person you don’t know? You don’t want them to feel left out.  What about if you’re married and you bump into your friend’s husband or a single guy in the shopping mall?  Do you still kiss them on the cheek to say hello or goodbye as you would if their wife was there?  Awkward.  What about if your friend just leaves without kissing you goodbye, does that mean they don’t like you as much as they did before?  Do you kiss a business acquaintance on the cheek if you know them really well and consider them a friend of sorts?

See what I mean?  A social minefield. What do you do?  What are your Kissing Terms?  How do you greet or take your leave?

And on the subject of kissing… have you noticed that when you’re dating, you do a lot of it but when you get married, mundanity, familiarity, the need for speedy hellos and farewells, children etc rob you of the desire or opportunity to snog and therefore the electricity that comes with a long passionate, savoured embrace.

Bring back making out for married people is what I say!