In the past two weeks there seems to have been an increase on the amount of strangers’ rude curiosity in my life. And it’s not as if I’ve been out more – I mostly work from home.
So here’s what’s been happening. (These are Facebook posts, the tense as it happened.)
On a tram – when I looked like this:
This was a conversation with woman on the tram a few Saturdays ago (after I’ve moved over for her and made polite conversation about the cold day):
“What’s happened to your face?”
“Are you sunburnt?”
“No I was born this way.”
“Oh that’s a shame.”
“No it’s not. I’m quite happy with my appearance.”
“Well it is. You look like you’re permanently sunburnt or something.” (Laughs)
“No need to comment further.”
“No.” (Laughs awkwardly.)
These things just happen. I don’t bring them on. Looking different gives strangers unwanted permission to comment and question. She is about my Mum’s age, maybe a bit younger. She looks and speaks like she’s middle class. She’s carrying a walking stick. As I pressed publish on Facebook, she got up and moved.
Here’s a tip: “Far out” isn’t the right reaction for a pharmacist/pharmacy worker when you see a customer who asks whether Epsom salts will irritate their severe skin condition.
It ends up in an awkward “I always look like this” from the red-faced customer.
I picked up a parcel dropped at a newsagent by DHL. Both staff asked me what’s happened to my face. One stared at me like a deer in the headlights before asking what happened, the other sorted the whole transaction and then asked me whether I was burnt.
I just want my fucking parcel, no questions!
Happy to train your staff in how to talk to people with facial differences.
I had amazing service from DHL. I called their office, gave them feedback about my experience with Racecourse Lucky Lotto. They thanked me, disappointed their partner has behaved in this way and wrote an email to their accounts manager that works with the partner asking them to give feedback to the newsagent staff. They also sent me an apology gift – not by courier – which I totally didn’t expect. Thanks DHL!
And here are some other questions I’ve been asked. Actual questions. What if I asked you whether you can have sex, or told you your face should be fixed? Still feel comfortable asking and receiving intrusive questions now?
The devil’s advocate
Even though I share these experiences in writing and speaking, people still don’t seem to understand the impact. When a woman who laughed at my face at a concert, some people defended her – including her friends she was with (I believe they’re complicit in her rudeness). Even when I share content featuring others saying similar things about intrusive questions, they don’t get it. People ablesplain. They say curiosity is natural, or justify it by saying they ask questions of people, or excuse the behaviour due to mental illness. They want us to educate constantly, even when we’re tired. feel these kinds of justifications are as tiring as the incidents themselves.
There have also been a few comments around autism/other disability and social cues to justify this behaviour, and so I’m not sure whether I’m saying the right thing. But I’m of the opinion that disability isn’t an excuse to forget manners. This incident, and other curious and rude intrusions, is about manners. A facial difference doesn’t give you the right to know. If you wouldn’t like being asked, don’t ask. Disability isn’t a free pass.
If you’re non disabled, and a disabled person tells you their experience, take the time to listen. Don’t play devil’s advocate and try to get us to see it another way. Just show some genuine support, and change your behaviour if you’re naturally curious and feel it’s ok to ask strangers about their appearance.
And here’s what I have done about it
After writing about a number of rude encounters with people asking about my face recently, a few people suggested I get some business cards made up.
(Text: ‘Asking about a stranger’s appearance is rude. (Where are your manners?) You really don’t need to know why my face looks like this. For you, it might be the first time you’ve seen someone with a facial difference. But for me, living with a facial difference – and your reactions – are my every day. Carlyfindlay.com.au’)
I really don’t feel the need to educate intrusive strangers about my medical details. Unless they’re kissing it (Adam), treating it (doctors and nurses), my face is none of their business. And I’ve seen how such cards get laughed at and thrown away by strangers who point and stare. Someone suggested I educate the strangers on how rude they’re being by asking me about my appearance. Brilliant! (Thanks Anna!)
So I took a tiny excerpt of an article I wrote, whacked on a statement about how rude they’re being, and added my blog address should they want to find more info – or perhaps apologise.
Here they are! I’ll hand one out to the next twit who asks, and report back. Let’s hope they make strangers think about their need to know about someone else’s face.
The text on the card is from this article.
Someone told me that they thought it was their responsibility to answer everyone’s questions about their/their child’s appearance. No. There’s no obligation to do so. And in doing so, it sets up an expectation that intrusive questions are acceptable.
I did some media around these cards – I spoke to ABC Hobart.
And Teen Vogue asked me what not to say to someone with a severe skin condition.
Teen Vogue, you guys! The coolest publication around.
Last year when a cleaner walked out on me because she was scared of my face, I wrote these simple tips.
Here’s a simple guide for encountering someone who looks different:
- Say hello. Smile at us.
- Apologise if you showed you are visibly startled.
- If we provide you an explanation like “I was born like this”, accept it and get on with what you’re doing.
- Ask polite questions, only if you feel it will add to your day. Preface them with “I hope you don’t mind me asking..”
- Don’t just leave a job we’ve hired you for because you’re scared of our faces.
- And don’t justify the behaviour or tell me you are a natural question asker. Think about how it is to be on the receiving end of this behaviour regularly.
Has this post helped you or made you think? Are you going to use it in the workplace or classroom? Please consider buying me a drink.