Stairs are awesome: They help us get up high without having to climb ladders, scale walls or use grappling hooks. When it comes to actually using stairs, however, people sometimes have a hard time, not only because the potential for tumbling down them is very real, but because the ass of anyone a few steps ahead of you is undoubtedly inundating your field of vision.
Now, before you try to say that your eyeballs have never been inches away from an ass on a set of stairs, the internet and a large grouping of its people agree that this is indeed a common occurrence (so quit lying). One thread on Reddit in particular, which asks, “Where the hell are you supposed to look when walking up stairs right behind a woman?,” has more than 1,000 comments and 7,000 upvotes, both numbers that reflect the commonality of this often awkward situation.
So, yeah, without considering public decency, your options are aplenty. But to avoid any excessive awkwardness or accidentally coming off as a total creep, where should you look?
There are a few things to consider here. On Quora, where someone asked the same question, a man by the name of Larry Flynn, who claims to have “gained from the experiences life has offered,” repeats the common suggestion, “Look at the stairs and watch where you put your feet.” And sure, this is an option, but it comes with some inherent risks — namely, if your eyes are aimed downward, rather than straight ahead, “You risk a face-to-butt situation,” warns Casey Kidwell, an exercise aficionado who frequents the Culver City stairs, an outdoor staircase of 282 uneven steps, popular among runners and hikers. Surely, bumping face-first into the ass ahead of you would be even more awkward and creepy than staring at it for a few seconds.
Then again, it all depends on how the people around you perceive your approach. “I’m a head-down kind of guy, probably to the point of awkwardly overcompensating,” says Ty Tapiro, author of Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome. “I guess my head-down strategy could create an extra awkward situation, but at least it would be unintentional. People are surprisingly forgiving of genuine mistakes, but far less forgiving of behavior that they interpret as creepy.”
Changing your pace could help you avoid all of this, though. “If at all possible, take a slower step to allow the person to get up a little higher than you, or wait a moment so that they can get a few steps ahead of you,” suggests etiquette expert Elaine Swann, who says she often experienced this plight while traversing the crowded subway stations in New York. She also suggests simply looking elsewhere on their body, like at their collar or their shoulders, even though she recognizes that many of us will have a natural impulse to take a glimpse at their behind.
Which brings me to an important point: As my colleague Miles Klee recently spelled out, asses, those belonging to both men and women, have something of a magnetic quality, and “tons of perfectly decent folks are taxonomizing asses with scholarly grace and subtlety, and not out of sheer horniness but a kind of comparative instinct.” In other words, if your eyes are drawn to the ass bouncing up the stairs ahead of you, understand that this is a normal behavior, and try not to make a bigger deal of it than it needs to be.
Klee does add, though, that an ass-check and an ogling are two very different things, which is an important distinction. “An ass-check is deft, glancing and possibly even clinical: You make an approximation of size, shape and bounce, and you get the hell out of there,” he writes. “Staring is rude because it leaves no doubt as to the nature of your interest in a given ass; obviously, you’ve lost yourself in a lustful reverie, and this excess transforms your attention into harassment.”
So, if looking at the ass straight ahead of you is the only way to make it up the stairs without taking a tumble, do as you must. “Even though someone’s behind is right in your face, that doesn’t mean you’re a creep,” Swann says. “Etiquette is really about putting others at ease, so in this particular instance, my advice would be to put yourself at ease. This is just a natural part of the daily commute, if you will. There are thousands of other people who are met with this circumstance.”
After all, a few seconds of awkward ass-looking, while it may be a little weird, is still preferable to having to grappling hook your way to the 12th story of your office building.