awkward staring from a coworker

A reader writes:

I’m hoping that you can help out the office with a small problem from one of our fellow coworkers. We’re a bubbly little office of 8 women and one gentleman – as you can imagine we chit chat throughout the week, take lunches and attend meetings together, etc. When I first began in the office, I would catch one coworker looking at me. It’s an intense look – the kind you can feel when not looking and even if you look over as she’s looking, she doesn’t smile and go about her business – she lingers. Honestly, once you get past the judgmental aspect, it’s downright creepy.

I thought I was alone in this until a few weeks ago I was quietly asked by another coworker if I noticed it too. Turns out she stares at everyone – throughout the day (i.e., at large meetings, lunches) and it’s making us all really uncomfortable. Do you have any advice for dealing with this? It seems like it might be a tough thing to mention / is it really worth the potential of making her feeling really embarrassed?

One option is to just ignore it if you’re not terrible uncomfortable — just decide that this is her own weird eccentricity and you’re going to leave her to happily stare at people while you deliberately become oblivious.

But if you do want to try to curtail it, I think this is one of those things that you address in the moment when it’s happening, so that you can be casual about it rather than making it into a Big Deal Conversation.

Now, I realize that not everyone subscribes to this theory, but I tend to believe that you can just be direct about almost anything as long as your tone is nice. So if you want to say something to her about this … well, just say it.

When you feel her staring, just meet her eyes with an expectant look on your face. Ask, “Do you need something from me?”  If she says no, you can say, “Oh, I thought you were looking at me” or even the completely direct “How come you’re staring at me?”  (Again, said nicely — like you’re curious, not like you’re being confrontational.)

Or, alternately, just say “Jane, stop staring at me! It unnerves me!”

If these are too direct for your comfort level, then you’re left going back to option one:  Commit to blocking it out, which is often a good approach for annoying traits in other people that you can’t change.

{ 75 comments… read them below }

  1. A Bug!

    My advice is to pick up some googly-eye glasses and put them on your head so that they are always facing the staring coworker. In fact, pick up several of them and distribute them to your coworkers!

    1. Ellen M.

      Or they could point with arm outstretched (like in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”) and say in a strong voice: “STARING!” And make it a game where every other person in the area then has to say “staring!” as quickly as possible, and the last one to say it has to clean out the microwave in the staff kitchen or bring in donuts for everyone the next day, or drink a shot of vodka(?)

      Or you could each print the word “STARING” on a paddle (like the judges on Dancing with the Stars) and just hold it up when she stares.

      1. A Bug!

        Not for any particular reason, but when you type “STARING” that way, I picture it being said in the style of Charlie Sheen’s “WINNING!”

        And the mental picture of a bunch of people in an office doing their best Charlie Sheen impressions in response to a staring coworker is giving me a fit of the giggles.

  2. Anonymous

    I’ve found that making the awkwardness about myself in these types of situations can help – in this situation, when I caught her staring at me, I would probably say something like “Do I have something in my teeth?” or “Does my hair look weird?” Anything that would convey the message that she’s staring at me, but avoid the directness of confrontation.

    Of course, if she doesn’t realize the staring is weird, it’s possible (probable?) she won’t pick up on that either.

    1. Sophie

      It’s possible. She may be the type who has trouble with some social cues. I would go with a more direct approach, like, “Do you need something, you were staring at me…”

      Also, she may be just starting off into space and those people happen to be in her line of vision. So she’s not really staring AT but rather staring THROUGH. It happens to me from time to time. I get lost in thought or something and don’t realize I am staring through someone. You can usually tell if that person is glassy-eyed and when you speak to them it’s obvious you’ve roused them from spacing out.

      Either way I agree that the direct approach is best.

      1. Anonymous

        This. I’ve done the spacing out thing and bothered people in more cases than I know.

        I could actually be the subject of this letter. One person confronted me about it as if I was a creepy guy at the bar who wanted to pick her up. I apologized and said I was going through some things in my head and didn’t realize I was staring. She seemed to accept my explanation, but we had a weird relationship after that point until she left the company. I was always self conscious around her, and I don’t think she ever stopped thinking I was creepy :-/

        The point is, don’t assume the worst – especially since you’re not the only subject of the stares. I like AAM’s option#2. Make the person aware of the issue without being confrontational. If she perceives you as non judgmental, she will be more likely to listen to your concern and address it.

      2. Natalie

        I love staring into space and suck as social cues, so I usually try to aim my staring at the ground or up the in the air (depending on what position feels best for my head). Cuts down on inadvertently upsetting people and not being able to smooth it over.

    2. Anonymous

      +2.

      Or one of my personal favorites: “I know — you just can’t take your eyes off me, can you?” It diffuses the awkwardness (or not, depending on your relationship with the person) but hints that you’ve noticed her staring!

    3. Anonymous

      You would be surprised at people who can’t take a hint. The number is larger than you would think.

  3. fposte

    Any chance there’s something like uncorrected nearsightedness (I’m reminded that Christabel Bielenberg once said she found it easy to be fearless in discussion with the Nazis because she couldn’t actually *see* them) or petit mal seizures? In other words, is she actually seeing what she looks at or just pointing her eyes that way?

    1. Anonymous

      Along these lines…sometimes when I’m deep in thought or day dreaming I stare at something and don’t realize it.

      Thankfully I have my own office so I don’t think this is a problem, but as fposte said, maybe she isn’t actually seeing where her eyes are pointing?

    2. K.

      I am nearsighted and wear contacts most days (meaning I wear glasses if I don’t wear my contacts; I never go without corrective lenses, as I would fall down the stairs) and sometimes they will shift in such a way that causes me to have to … adjust my eyes, if that makes sense, so it may look as though I’m staring. And as other people have said, sometimes I’ll stare at nothing and my eyes will glaze over if I’m lost in thought. I never mind being asked about/called on it, so I’d just say something like “Everything OK? You were staring.”

    3. Lori

      The seizures is an important one. If she’s only staring at people and never at anything else, it’s quite possible that she’s purposely staring. If you ask her something like, “Do I have something on my teeth?” and she barely responds, then you know it’s something deeper. And if it’s something deeper, she should not be behind a wheel. I have absence seizures (fka petit mal) and don’t take medication for them (by choice). My eyes flicker. A co-worker didn’t realize I had seizures (though I’m pretty open about it) and thought I didn’t like what she was saying. She didn’t realize I was having lots of seizures during the day.

  4. Anonymous

    Sometimes I look out as I’m thinking, but I’m not really seeing. In meetings, I try to find a place to look at, as I never know quite what to do in a large meeting. I was called on the second – because it made people feel I wasn’t listening. So I improved, but I am still the “serious” one in meetings. For the first case, luckily I am not usually around others, but if someone asked me “did you need me?” or the like, I would not be offended, perhaps a little flustered at doing something unintentional. (Also my coworkers now know that I stare off into space, so everyone is more comfortable when it happens)

  5. Lils

    My solution in these situations is to imagine a condition which would cause the person to be acting this way without being able to help it. My first thought is Asperger’s, or like fposte pointed out, nearsightedness. I mentally chalk it up to the person having this condition and the result is that I quit feeling weird and I definitely quit wanting to confront the person. It taps my sympathy reserves and helps me relax.

    I have a coworker who is legally blind but doesn’t use a cane–you’d never know why she “looks” funny at you unless you knew she was disabled.

    1. Anonymous

      I’m sorry, but this is my biggest pet peeve – every minor social faux pas is not an indication of Asperger’s and I don’t understand why people suggest this every single time someone they encounter breaks a small social norm.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        I think Lils was suggesting a way to have a kinder take on this — to realize that there could be a reason you weren’t thinking about behind the behavior. Asperger’s was an example, not a diagnosis.

      2. Lils

        I’m not suggesting that you *tell* anyone what your mental made-up diagnosis is. It’s just a way to remind yourself that people have all kinds of things going on that you have no way of knowing about. I like thinking about Asperger’s because I *don’t* know much about it or many people with it–so I can chalk up all kinds of weirdness to it–in my head ONLY. You’re welcome to tell yourself they have unicorn flu, if that’s what helps you get through the day.

        1. Anonsensical

          Unicorn flu! Thank you, Lils. I am going to use this diagnosis to excuse all sorts of weirdness and rudeness from now on. Can’t wait till my SO gets upset with a driver cutting him off and I can say, “Hey, cut him some slack. Maybe he has unicorn flu and has to rush to the hospital.”

          1. The gold digger

            Yes. I thought very unkindly of a neighbor who I see out at all hours, walking his dogs. It looks like he’s drunk. “Unemployed, drunk, probably lives with his parents,” I thought.

            Then I learned he has MS. And walks as much as he can to help reduce the impact of the disease. And he’s down to one dog because his other dog died.

            You never know what’s really going on in someone’s life.

            I also have talked to him and have learned he is a really nice guy.

            1. Anonymous

              Good post. I like to be reminded that one should never assume the worst, but instead assume there’s a logical, non-evil reason why someone is behaving as they are. But, I only keep $5 in my wallet just in case evey person on the subway IS a pick-pocket.

            2. Long Time Admin

              Great post. I tend to be judgemental and I have to stop myself all the time when I start thinking that way. You really never do know what’s what in someone else’s life. It’s an ongoing struggle.

          2. AnotherAdmin

            @lils – Unicorn flu – 1000% AWESOME. Actually, this whole post/comments is awesome.

            On the subject of weird habits…one of my former co-workers had two weird habits: (1) he would put a piece of hard candy in his mouth, hold it between his teeth and simultaneously suck on it and talk to you; and (2) rap on my desk (like a drumroll) while reviewing a document. I took the AaM approach and called him on both habits in a direct but light-hearted way. He stopped and we all lived happily ever after. (And yes, #1 is as gross as it sounds.)

        2. The Editor

          Lils–

          Thank you for this. Seriously. My son has Aspergers, and while staring isn’t something he does, my wife and I often find so much joy in the little quirks of his life. He’s a treasure, and sometimes it’s just so much easier to let his own uniqueness be “in his head.” Literally.

          My first thought, to be fair, was that the staring could be caused by a host things: cultural norms, social mal-adjustment, mental illness, and so forth. That does not mean that we judge or pigeon-hole the person, but rather understand and work with the person.

          Most people find my son an extremely pleasant and joyful person. Honestly, no one makes me laugh harder and brings a smile to my faster than my son. He is the precious glue in my family that we all just love to be see. But he does some things that people, especially strangers, find uncomfortable. What an incredible opportunity to educate and help spread understanding that is!

          As one who deals with Aspergers on a daily basis, I do NOT find your comments offensive in any way. Rather, I find them hopeful!

          And thanks for the laugh on Unicorn Flu! I think we all have at least a mild case of that.

      3. Ellen M.

        I also would suspect rudeness or cluelessness before I’d think of Asperger’s, or a seizure disorder or vision problem.

        I worked for five years for an organization that serves blind people and I have two people in my family who have a PDD-NOS diagnosis (which is on the autism spectrum). I also know people who are simply thoughtless and rude and it’s not a disorder or disability of any kind.

        And staring off into space and staring AT someone are two different things.

    2. Natalie

      I just recently completed a volunteer training where they suggested a similar tactic they called the “rule of 6” – when a client (or co-worker for this crowd) is behaving in a way that is puzzling or frustrating or bothersome, take a moment to come up with 6 plausible explanations for the behavior.

      The point is not to diagnose the person or allow your mental exercise affect how you respond. Rather, it’s what you’ve said below – empathize with their humanity and recognize that there is some reason you’re not privy to for the action.

      1. khilde

        Yes, I like this idea too! Do you have any idea why it’s six things, specifically? I’m just curious if going up to six is more effective or if it just sounded better. Even taking the time to come up with ONE alternative explanation can help diffuse your own judgment and sensitivity toward another’s actions, I think. Thanks for sharing this idea. I’m going to use it for some of my training classes.

  6. sparky629

    It could be that she likes to stare at people ( I know that’s kinda creepy) but seriously some people just like people watching. I’ve done it on many occasions.
    I wasn’t trying to be rude but something about that person just caught my eye and then I start thinking about it (not in a creepy/sexual/judgmental way) which led to totally different thoughts about something else but I had forgotten to look away.
    Or maybe she’s a shy/introverted person who’s looking at you guys for social cues. Or maybe she likes the clothes you wear and is wondering how to pull it off herself. There could be a million reasons why she stares at people but I think it’s pretty harmless.
    Now if she starts doing other ‘weird’ things in conjunction with staring then I would be worried.

  7. Student

    This sounds like an entry to “First World Problems” if I’ve ever heard one.

    If it seems a bit weird but harmless, then it’s probably weird but harmless. If she’s muttering about burning the building down if they take her red swingline stapler while she stares at you, then you’ve got something worth worrying about. This is a basic life coping skill you should’ve learned long before your first job, not a work-related question. Don’t you have any odd relatives, annoying neighbors, or weird former class mates? If not, where are you from, so I can make plans to move there?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      No, no, no! Absolutely, it’s a minor issue in the scheme of things, but I love those. I welcome them here! I very much want this to be a place where people can ask weird, random questions about odd workplace stuff, even if it’s small. So much more interesting than writing the 10,000th article on the Internet about how to follow up after an interview.

      1. Sophie

        It’s helpful to have these types of questions answered, especially if this is your first job and you aren’t really sure how to handle work place relations. How you interact with odd friends or relatives can be very different than how you deal with someone in the work place. The context and expectations can be very different. For example, my team just hired a woman who has been in the workforce for about 15 years and has 2 teenage kids, so you could say she has basic life skills. Another one of our coworkers, when training her, would stand really closely behind her. This made her nervous. She came to me to ask if she should speak with our manager about it, or if she should just be direct with the coworker. In a non-work environment, say with friends or whoever, she probably would have just been direct, but she didn’t know the atmosphere here and didn’t know what was appropriate, so she needed some advice. It was a small thing, but she didn’t fully understand our culture or personalities at the time.

      2. AnotherAdmin

        That’s why we all love you/your blog – AaM rocks the hard questions, and the off the wall ones!

      3. ChristineH

        Amen Alison! I love these quirky conversations. Oh sure those 10,000 articles about following-up can be useful, but this blog brings out a rich variety of real-world workplace topics and discussions.

      4. Anon.

        I love these kind of questions too! Sitting here with my coffee, just waking up.. clicked on my AaM folder and the title of the post made me smile and a little ‘thanks alison, happy saturday’ in my head :D

        I KNEW this would be a good one, with great comments too :D

        Thanks!

    2. fposte

      I have my problems with the “First World Problems” phrase at the best of times–it’s co-opting the notion of global awareness to make dismissiveness seem socially significant–but I also think that there aren’t many places on the globe where staring inappropriately at people gets a free pass. It’s just that different places calibrate “inappropriately” differently.

      1. jmkenrick

        Haha. Dismissiveness seem socially significant. That meme does reek of armchair activism.

        That said, my understanding was that “first world problems” was originally meant as a tounge-in-check recognition that someone is complaining about a “quality” problem.

        As in, “I have so much music, I can’t fit it all on my iPad!”

        So, regardless, I don’t think this qualifies. I think people find being stared at unnerving no matter where they’re from. :)

        1. fposte

          Yeah, in the “Oh, no, my Beemer’s too big!” context (or really, anytime you’re using it on yourself) the phrase doesn’t bother me. But it also seems to be used as a way to suggest somebody’s a bad person for being concerned with anything other than an invading army or a decade of drought. And you know, even in the second, third, fourth, and ninety-millionth world, people still bug the crap out of one another in little ways.

          1. Liz T

            This. Plus, some problems are genuinely bad, but specific to the First World. (Your bank account hacked and your life savings are gone? Couldn’t happen without internet access!)

    3. Dan

      Also keep in mind: if you don’t have any odd relatives, annoying neighbors, or weird former class mates, then you’re the odd relative, annoying neighbor, and probably also the weird former class mate.

    4. Liz T

      “First World Problems” is such a weird saying…we live in the First World. We should have Third World problems?

      I get what people mean, but it’s kind of weird for a blog that frequently deals with non-life-threatening workplace issues.

    5. Long Time Admin

      I think using phrases such as “First World” and “Third World” only serves to further separate us. We are ONE world, with different standards of living.

      It is good to remember that most people in the world have a harder time just subsisting than we do, but when you’ve lost your job and your home is in foreclosure, even if you still feel sorry for all those others, you’re scared for yourself, and your problems matter.

  8. Ariancita

    I agree with a few other posters: if she’s not direct and meaningful making eye contact, she could just be thinking/zoning out. I know I’ve caught myself staring when I was simply thinking about something, sometimes even staring at a person’s face. However, once they looked at me with the interrogatory raised eyebrow, I realized what I was doing and sheepishly looked away.

    Alternatively, she could be on a strict diet and instead of seeing you, she sees a floating steak.

    1. Ariancita

      Wow, that first sentence didn’t make sense. Should read: “…if she’s not making direct and meaningful eye contact…”

    2. ImpassionedPlatypi

      “Alternatively, she could be on a strict diet and instead of seeing you, she sees a floating steak.”

      *hears the Looney Toons theme in my head*

  9. Anonymous

    This could also be a difference in accepted culture/social norms, like different personal space preferences in different countries. Did she grow up in the States? When I was a foreign exchange student, we Americans all agreed how uncomfortable it was for us that the people in the country we were visiting frequently stared just as the OP described.

    1. Anonymous

      Yes, I totally agree. In some countries staring is no big deal. I live outside the US and it is 100% permissible to give someone a once (twice… and thrice) over, no excuses necessary. Little old ladies can literally burn holes in you. I’ve found it to be very effective when you want someone’s attention, but I do get weird looks when I come back to the US for a bit. I can’t imagine using it at work when a simple “Hey” or “Excuse me” will suffice, but I have found that if I catch someone staring, I start smiling uncontrollably and blurt out “he-LLOOOO” as if they had been spacing out and it usually stops. At least in the US. Nothing short of a silver bullet would stop a little old lady over here from throwing you the shank eye.

  10. Riki

    My first thought is that this coworker is just socially awkward. She stares at people because she wants to engage but doesn’t know what to say. Sounds like your office is pretty tightly knit, with the exception of this one person. Is she new? Zoning out is also a good possibility, like others have mentioned. Maybe she’s just the “April” of the office (a la Parks & Recreation)?

    Anyway, else she is doing other things that creep you out, I’d ignore it. If you want to address it, please be very savvy and subtle about it. If she is very shy, being too direct might cause her to die from embarrassment.

  11. Charles

    Oh lord, people stare at me all day long!

    Usually when I’m standing in front of my training class ;)

    Seriously though, it could be she is just spacing out, or has vision trouble, and not even aware of how others are perceiving her. So, if you do mention it be kind about it as AAM suggests.

    Not exactly related; but, I know there are many in my trainings that seem to do the same thing – space out. I blame too much television when they were kids – TV doesn’t require a response like a living person does, so they never learned to show body language that they are listening. (or I am just putting them to sleep, hmm, gotta work on that)

    1. Bonnie

      Charles, I don’t know what type of training you do but we have noticed the same thing and have shortened training sessions due to our belief that staff members are zoning out. The only problem with this is that when we bring in guest trainers for longer sessions, I now feel the need to warn the trainer that our staff aren’t used to longer training sessions.

  12. ChristineH

    As with other posters, I too thought the staring could be due to a form of Aspergers or vision impairment. Speaking for myself, I’ve mentioned before that I have a vision impairment. Thankfully, it’s not to the point where I need to use a cane (I have been trained in cane use, but I haven’t used it in years…long story). However, it is sometimes hard for me to see if a person is on the phone or is awake (in the case of working in hospitals). Thus, it might take me an extra few seconds to ascertain if the person is available to speak, which can look like I’m staring at them. It’s never been a problem to my knowledge, but I would never be offended if someone had kindly said something. That makes the person feel safe to apologize and even be candid about why are staring.

    That said, if it turns out that the staring is due to a visual or social disability, I’d want to take it a step further and discuss possible other strategies so as to not make coworkers uncomfortable.

    These kinds of quirky behaviors in the workplace can be so tricky to balance when it comes to creating a welcoming yet professional work environment.

    1. ChristineH

      I meant to add: You want your employees to feel welcome to be themselves, quirks and all; yet, you don’t want others to feel uncomfortable or creeped out by these quirks either.

  13. Ellen M.

    I wonder if the “starer” were a man, would people be as likely to give him the benefit of the doubt here…

    Remember not so long ago we were discussing “The Gift of Fear” and how you should pay attention if someone’s behavior is creeping you out? We don’t know the intentions of the “starer” here and maybe she has no idea how she is perceived, or has a vision problem or…(?)

    Or maybe she IS intentionally trying to make others uncomfortable.

    Read this again, with the starer as a man:
    “It’s an intense look – the kind you can feel when not looking and even if you look over as he’s looking, he doesn’t smile and go about her business – he lingers. Honestly, once you get past the judgmental aspect, it’s downright creepy. …it’s making us all really uncomfortable. ”

    OP, does this woman otherwise behave normally?

  14. Anonymous

    I sometimes stare at things while I am thinking, and I have seen other people (on the bus, at work, at the park, etc.) do this as well. However, I usually focus on an object rather than a person.

  15. Kat M

    Not quite the same situation, but I have a friend who was in a car accident years ago and had a traumatic brain injury as a result. Since the accident, he STARES INTENTLY whenever he’s speaking to someone, or thinking about speaking to someone (which can take some time). It took a while to get used to the intense, unwavering eye contact (I don’t even look into my husband’s eyes like that very often), but it’s like anything else, and I got used to it, for the most part.

  16. Anonymous

    I love, love, LOVE to stare at people. I wish I were invisible so I could stare at people undetected. As a child I used to sit in a tree in my neighborhood. I sat high enough so that no one could see me, but I could see everybody else. I loved it! In high school I used to get teased because I would be caught staring at people I found intriguing for whatever reason. I consider it a childlike, day-dreamy habit that I have to force myself to abstain from while at work.

    I wouldn’t worry about your co-worker having creepy, covert reasons to stare at you. I’m sure she is just day-dreaming the way I used to. If it’s really bothersome I would absolutely follow AaM’s advice to nicely, casually ask her about it. I appreciated it and still do when friends call me out on my staring habit in a nice, sweet way

    1. Anonymous

      My mother use to do that in amusement parks when I was younger. She wouldn’t go on most of the rides so she’d wait for me. She said she’d “People Watch.”

  17. EngineerGirl

    Wow. Just ask her. Really. But make sure you do it in private so you don’t embarrass her (or yourself).

    I once was accused of “staring hatefully” at someone. In reality, I had just come off of a 15 hour shift and was exhausted. But I went to a bridal shower anyway, because it was for a friends daughter. Some woman at the shower knocked on my door the next day and said that I was being “hateful” and needed therapy to “get over my anger”. Hunh? I hardly noticed her at the party! I was too tired.

    Please don’t jump to conclusions because she doesn’t act the way you want her to. Please.

    1. Liz T

      An excellent point, but that was a one-off. Chronic behavior needs to be approached from a different perspective.

  18. Ann

    My brother’s ex-girlfriend does this. It’s unnerving. And she isn’t from another country, she was born and raised in Arkansas. Whenever we hung out, either dining at a restaurant or at home watching TV, I’d look up to find her just staring at me. Later on my husband mentioned that she’s always staring at him as well. I don’t think she is spacing out because I don’t see her just staring at random objects. I really think it is one of her quirks and doesn’t realize people can tell that she is staring. You know, the way children stare and don’t think people notice. This is actually one of the reasons I’m glad my brother is no longer dating her. It was just uncomfortable being around her.

  19. Anonymous

    I had a similar problem with a coworker at work. We were a similar office environment where it was about 8 women, and only 2 men. The one with the problem was one of the men, and when he wanted to speak with someone else he would come and stand behind you and stare, at the person, or what they had on the computer screen. Usually I would just address him right away, as it made me uncomfortable. Once, I decided not to address him just to see how long he would stand there, and he lasted for over 5 minutes. Then I turned around and I said politely that if he needs to speak to me I would prefer that he would speak to me, and that he doesn’t need to be concerned that he is interrupting me (as I thought that this might be the problem), and that I found it rude and uncomfortable for him to stare over my shoulder.

    As I got to know him, I found that his issue was that he had very low self-confidence, and wanted to be invited into conversation by others, instead of starting them himself.

  20. Long Time Admin

    All of the above, OR she really is creepy and does not mean well. (Sometimes you can really feel bad vibes.)

    OP, you’re the only one who can really tell. Try one or more of the softer ideas first (“do I have something in my teeth?”, or “do you need something from me?”). If the problem gets worse, talk to your boss.

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