Secret powers


Have you ever sat in an airport lounge near a guy on a cell phone talking so loud he could dispense with the phone altogether?

Have you ever been on a flight with an out-of-control kid running up and down the aisle screaming his head off?

Have you ever been stuck in line at a rental car counter behind a customer who insists on getting detailed driving directions?

Have you ever stood at a hotel registration desk waiting for a clerk who can’t seem to stop kibitzing with a colleague?

Now, wouldn’t it be cool if you had some secret power to quiet the loud talker, stop the rampaging kid and get service when you need it?

Well, I have good news for you. You do have that secret power! You can control other people’s behavior without so much as lifting a finger.

Hold on. This is not an advertorial. I’m not going to try to sell you a hypnosis training video, an electronic mental-intrusion gadget or an aerosol pheromone. Instead, I’m going to offer you a technique that is based on scientific studies, requires almost no training, is simple to apply, can be used in a wide variety of situations, is perfectly legal in all 50 states, and costs nothing. (Okay, maybe this does sound like an advertorial, but it’s not.)

And what is this secret power? Ready?

It is your ability to stare at people.

“Wait a minute, Riley,” you may be saying to yourself. “You give this big buildup about secret powers and all you come up with is just staring at people?”

Yep. That’s it. But to say “just staring” doesn’t do justice to this powerful agent of behavioral change. Staring can often produce results that more animated behaviors cannot. Ask any elementary school teacher. Or your mother.

Here’s how it works. Except for narcissists, people generally feel uncomfortable when they are the object of sustained attention. They feel they are being scrutinized, which of course they are. That discomfort creates anxiety, and to relieve the anxiety, a person will likely change whatever miserable thing he is doing. He changes his behavior, and the stare ceases; his anxiety is relieved, and you’ve accomplished your objective. It’s a win-win situation.

Staring pointers

One caveat. Dane Archer, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, warns that staring is subject to cultural interpretation. In Russia, for instance, staring can signal friendship or attraction, while in Japan staring is considered rude.

“The basic point is that staring carries different meanings in different cultures, and the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ staring is extremely subtle — far too subtle, in fact, for people from another country to use safely,” Archer warns.

But if you feel you are on safe cultural footing, give staring a try. Here are some pointers.

Maintain focus. Chances are, the subject of your stare will avert his eyes as soon as his make contact with yours. You have to stay focused because as he looks back again and again, he must know that you aren’t just giving him a casual glance. If you are looking elsewhere during his return checks, your secret power will vanish.

Remain expressionless. Don’t frown, scowl or otherwise contort your face. Staring is powerful enough. Let your eyes do the work. If you overdo it by adding a squint, smirk or sneer, you may be perceived as menacing rather than observant, and you could find yourself in the company of security personnel.

Don’t overplay. Once you’ve seen a change one way or the other in the subject’s behavior, look away. If the behavior has been extinguished, mission accomplished. If the behavior worsens, staring will likely be perceived as a threat, and its continuance will not work in your favor.

The next time you want others to pipe down, calm down, get out of the way or just give you the service you deserve, don’t make a scene. Just make eye contact.