What kind of person laughs at a stranger’s face?
I went to see Jimmy Barnes at the Regent Theatre last night. Twenty minutes before the show, I queued up for a bottle of water.
A woman (probably in her 50s) in front of my turned around and saw me. She laughed at me.
I asked if she was ok. She said “your face!”
I said “no need to laugh, I was born this way.”
She continued to laugh. Her friend turned to talk to her, asking what’s wrong.
The woman who laughed said to her friend “look at her face”, and continued laughing.
I told her how rude she was, and again I was born this way.
The woman said “what?” And looked a bit confused.
They asked me if I painted my face? “Who did that to your face?” One said.
“No one, I was born like this.” Exasperated. Nothing was getting through.
Her friend said “she has a skin condition”, and apologised to me. The woman who laughed did not apologise.
Her friend then said to me “it’s ok; no one understands unless they know you.”
After I got my drink, she and her friends (four or five of them) were discussing what happened, as though I was the rude one.
As I entered the theatre, I was shaking. So angry. As I took my seat, a lovely social media follower spotted me and we had a lovely chat. I debriefed to her. She couldn’t believe it.
The show was amazing. I loved it. But I still could not believe that any adult (or child over five) thinks it’s ok to laugh at a stranger’s face.
Almost four hours later, I was behind the woman and her friends as I left. The departing audience was a big crowd so I’m surprised I saw them again.
I tapped her on the shoulder and said “excuse me I’m the woman whose face you laughed at. It’s not ok to laugh at a stranger’s face.” She did not speak to me. Her friend told me she smiled, that she was wasn’t laughing and I’ve got it wrong.
I said “I deal with this every day, I know people’s reactions.”
Her partner said “you’re stalking us now”.
I was not stalking, I was walking through the crowd, with the other audience members.
Nothing would make them see the problem with laughing at a stranger’s face. But I felt brave for speaking up.
I was shaking from this encounter. Having to explain myself, being laughed at, people’s poor excuses for ignorance. Ultimately, I’m sick of going from just minding my business to enduring rudeness from strangers.
I mentioned her age because I want to show that this stuff is said by people who should know better. Friday’s Instagram troll, who told Liz Carr and I to get plastic surgery and then take a less ugly photo, as a teenage boy. Last night’s face laugher was a woman old enough to be my mother, and her friends – some the same age and one who looked older – who were complicit in their behaviour. They were well dressed, white Australian and affluent enough for a night out at a fancy venue. They were fans of Jimmy Barnes, and I expect other classic Australian rock music, just like me.
These encounters sneak up on me, interrupting my day. I’m almost always feeling happy, excited with anticipation of a great time ahead, and feeling good about my skin and appearance. And then, bang! Someone laughs at my face, or tells me how ugly I am or asks a stupid question. And of course I recognise these incidents straight away, because I’ve become pretty attuned to body language and tone.
Concerts are my safe place, where I immerse myself in the music and fandom. It can be hard navigating intoxicated people, though. You can’t reason with them. Belinda Downes, a friend with a facial difference, wrote to me, encapsulating the very essence of how I feel.
“I’ve deleted my last comment only because I’ve just thought of a way to say it better… as stupid as the woman was, the other part is just as important. I call it consciousness breaking. Someone, who doesn’t have any respect for me, could be thinking about my facial scars for quite a while, but without me knowing because I’m just going about my everyday life. But there’s a shock because they just burst into your consciousness without warning. The problems are the suddenness and randomness. Even though I’m a linguist – and we study conversations- there’s no way to prepare because they break conversational rules. I think Grice’s Maxims vs stupid comments directed suddenly and randomly at unsuspecting people would make a great PhD… and I don’t even believe in karma! Glad you’re feeling better, and thanks for opening up this conversation. (((Hug)))”
(Belinda also included a link to YouTube for further reference.)
You don’t laugh at someone (or recoil in horror) because you don’t know their backstory. You don’t place your discomfort about someone’s appearance before theirs. You don’t belittle someone because you’re shocked. You stop laughing and listen to them if they choose to explain. And you don’t try to justify your bad behaviour or deny it happened. Take some responsibility. Get some manners – immediately.
I don’t write about these encounters for sympathy, or for attention seeking. I do it to show the every day ableism that people like me endure. (And I’m sure the woman and her friends wouldn’t even understand the concept of ableism, because not even me explaining I was born this way three times made a differerence to her.) I’m tired of the narrow minded, sheer rudeness from people who look like they know better. When I write about these things, please don’t play devil’s advocate in order to justify ableism, abuse behaviour, and disability discrimination. It’s tiring having my experiences diminished. This is happening more frequently lately.
I also don’t want to be asked for FURTHER advice about how you should respond to people who look different when I’ve just experienced an incident like last night’s. But a Facebook follower left the following comment:
“Good for you but please tell me. I am the person who would see you and turn away quickly. Not because I find you offensive but because I feel, well, kind of sorry for you. I would never address you in a mean or rude way intentionally however you may find my actions offensive. I love your posts and updates but am starting to question my own reactions. Do you have any advice to us ‘naive’ or perhaps even ‘ignorant’ souls how not to offend people like yourself. Please understand that this is an innocent post.”
I actually sighed when I saw this comment on Facebook in the intermission. Here’s my answer (for others who might be thinking the same thing):
I don’t want pity. I hope that you will see from my social media that my life is not bad, not less than. I have written a few easy tips here. (From when my face scared the cleaner away.) You can also watch my episode of You Can’t Ask That.
Also I know this is an innocent question on your part – for you only encounter people like me occasionally, but I encounter questions and reactions like this regularly. So please understand that by you asking, especially on a night where I endured abuse and ableism to my face, it’s emotional labour for me to explain how someone should react to visible difference. I provided a few resources, I hope they help.
When I write about these experiences, people justify it by telling me how shock, fear and laughter is a common, unavoidable reaction to something that looks different. This might be the case. But have a think about how it feels to be on the receiving end of such reactions. Imagine it happened on a semi regular basis. Also, if you defend your friend when they behave like this, you’re complicit in the behaviour.
I’m still upset this morning – more so from having her behaviour denied by her friends. I know today will be a good one. Last night’s experience will just be another one to add to the brag book for me. I hope she and her friends realise the impact of laughing at a stranger’s face. But sadly, I bet they’re still squabbling about how I imagined the whole thing.
(I wrote about the incident on Facebook immediately – and upon reflection, added more detail as I remembered it.. I promise it’s al true. That photo is from Friday night, but I was wearing the same dress last night, and felf the same level of happiness before the incident happened. And the review of Jimmy Barnes’ gig is here.)
Did this post help you or make you think? Will you use it in a classroom or workplace setting? Please consider buying me a drink. Support me here.