The Stare is a scourge of D.C. parties and … hey, are you listening?

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The tuxedos and the evening gowns are coming out for the White House correspondents’ dinner, the Washington elite’s annual fête of itself (though, nominally, it celebrates the First Amendment), which begins in earnest on Thursday evening as the pre-parties kick into swing. It’s a prime hunting ground for the apex room-workers: bashes full of Hollywood celebrities, members of Congress, ambassadors, Cabinet officials.

But along with all the polite glad-handing, the weekend brings with it a specific kind of etiquette breakdown — a restless tic that is common enough that people know it when they see it. Or rather, they know it when it fails to make eye contact.

“You just feel like they’re not listening to you, and they’re not engaged with you, right? Like, you’re getting a cursory nod, it’s not a genuine conversation,” says Daniel Desrochers, Washington correspondent for the Kansas City Star. “And you can follow their eyes, you can see their eyes scan the room behind you, and look for somebody else to talk to.”

And then, Anyway, so good to see youuu!

There doesn’t seem to be an agreed-upon term for this. The Power Scan? The Washington Gaze? Somebody we talked to called it “party peeping.” Another called it “the D.C. Stare,” which is good. But since we can’t pretend it was invented here, maybe we should just call it The Stare.

Okay, what is The Stare? So — you know how certain politicians and other blue-blooded charisma types have that ability to make you feel like, when they’re talking to you, you’re the only person in the world? It’s the opposite of that.

We’ve heard tales. There was the frequent party host who caught a D.C. shadow senator doing The Stare and thought: “Are you looking for the one person who knows who you are? Because it’s me.” A Washington Post colleague recalled having someone abruptly pause a conversation at Arena Stage to chase down a Kennedy. (It was a false alarm.) When we brought up The Stare on social media, Desrochers says one of his group chats lit up with people discussing another journalist as a frequent culprit. Another reporter replied to an X post to say he’d been falsely accused of doing it multiple times.

The parties and events around the White House correspondents’ dinner can be especially distracting, given the history of actually famous guests showing up alongside the Washington-famous.

“I’ve never had people staring at me,” says Ron Klain, President Biden’s former chief of staff (and the kind of person the black-tie wearers might want to buttonhole). “I will say that, in 2021, I wound up in a conversation with Kim Kardashian at the White House correspondents’ dinner. And then people looked and saw that.” (They talked about criminal justice reform.)

“In D.C., we’re constantly looking for the entertainment celebrities because we live relatively boring lives the other 51 weekends out of the year,” says Eric Schultz, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama who took the Property Brothers around town during last year’s festivities.

But this isn’t strictly a one-week-a-year habit. Does Schultz find himself doing it?

“I would say no, except I have asked my trainer to work on neck muscles. So I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this once or twice.”

Ed Solomon has a bit of a glimpse into why people do this. He’s the owner of Wedding Creations and Anthony’s Tuxedo, in Georgetown, where he (literally) takes the measure of Official Washington power players. When he brings up The Stare, his clients immediately recognize it.

“I think you have many people here in D.C. that are insecure of what they’re doing, or they’re using this as a steppingstone to their next job and a career move,” he says, reached over the phone after a busy weekend of renting out tuxedos for Saturday’s main event. Put another way, partygoers with wandering eyes might not just be looking for a better conversation; they might be scanning the room for a better future.

This is not just a Washington thing, as many people we spoke to correctly pointed out. It happens in New York, in Los Angeles, in Paris, in London, and anywhere else where social scenes are frequently shot through with professional ambition. But it makes sense that it happens here: For those who work in politics or political media, having met someone at a party can be a useful thing. Even if you’re not on the same team, so to speak.

“The whole cocktail party circuit is not a thing anywhere that I’ve worked besides D.C., and I worked in Kentucky before this, covering politicians, covering the Capitol. And like, this whole kind of scene is foreign to my colleagues back in other areas,” says Desrochers, the Star reporter. “And honestly, they often frown upon it, because it creates the kind of perception of hobnobbing with your sources and all that stuff.”

(Obligatory disclaimer: We’re not talking about all D.C. residents here, just the people who go to “Important Parties” in Official Washington.)

Even if The Stare is to be expected in certain circles, everyone we spoke to agreed it’s rude. Can it be done artfully?

“There’s a clever way to look around. And that’s to just take a look down and take a sip of your drink and look out the corner of your eye to see who you’d rather talk to,” says Sally Quinn, a preeminent hostess and longtime Washington Post writer, with a laugh. “It’s awful just to talk to somebody and stare over their shoulder.”

Or you could simply pay attention to the person you’re speaking to and then tactfully exit the conversation before scanning the room for the next one. You know … be human!

A lack of eye contact is one way to signal to someone that you don’t think they’re important, says Crystal L. Bailey, the director of the Etiquette Institute of Washington.

That’s a pretty harsh message to send, even if it’s an honest one. Better to actually commit to the conversation, then gracefully bail once it’s run its course.

“My biggest piece of advice is just not getting antsy right in the beginning of the conversation, of trying to get out, when you can learn something from any person that you meet in a room, no matter what they do,” says Bailey, who left her job as a government lawyer to become a full-time etiquette instructor. “Because sometimes, someone’s like, ‘Oh, I’m a violin instructor,’ and then they’re like, ‘Oh, well, that’s not going to benefit me. Let me try to get out of this conversation.’ Whereas you could learn more about all it takes to do that.”

When it’s time to make a deft exit, you could say you have to go the bathroom or grab some hors d’oeuvres, says Bailey. Of course, there’s always the chance that the person you just met, failing to take the cue, might follow you. Nightmarishly awkward.

Listen, being at a party is not easy — even if you’re good at parties (or think you are). Leaving a conversation: awkward. Getting a drink but having no one to talk to: awkward. Talking to someone but saying something awkward: awkward.

Say one thing for The Stare: It’s not necessarily awkward. It’s not as gross as other, lewder kinds of staring. It’s impolite, sure. Irritating, yeah. Above all, it’s obvious.

Quinn, who’s been going to parties in Washington for many years, described one memorable encounter with a White House social secretary at one such gathering.

“I’m talking to her and she’s staring over my shoulder the whole time. The entire time. And I kept trying to — I was practically standing on my hands to get her attention. And she clearly looked bored. And you know, I’m dying to know who over my shoulder was so important that she couldn’t even look at me. And then we ended the conversation, she walked away, and I turned around. It was a mirror.”

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