Gratitude

I step out of a pub and light up a cigarette. A random guy approaches.

Random guy: Got a smoke?

Me: No.

Him: Hey, how come you ran out of there so fast? Where you going? Wasn’t the music good? Don’t you like it in there? Don’t you—

Me: I… I don’t want to talk to you.

Him: You don’t? Okay. [walks away]

Beat.

Me: Thank you!

Thank you. Thank you for not being more of a pushy asshole.

That was a Great Moment in Feminism right there.

Let’s think about this for a minute. I was so stunned by the fact that he actually left me alone when I told him to, my reflexive response was gratitude, as if he’d done me a freakin’ favor. Never mind that he’d already approached me, asked me for something by way of greeting and, when refused that something, continued to talk at me a mile a minute, just hoping for any response. Never mind that he was totally encroaching on my personal space as he talked at me. Never mind that I hadn’t wanted to speak to him at all, even to say, “I don’t want to talk to you.”

And please note the ellipsis in that line of dialogue. That represents the moment where I was thinking, “Gah! How do I make him go away without being rude? Maybe I could say—hey, wait a minute! Why the fuck do I care about being rude when he obviously doesn’t? But, well, it’s not just about being rude. It’s that if I say, ‘I don’t want to talk to you,’ he’s going to ask why, and start insisting that he doesn’t mean any harm, and he’s not a bad guy, and I will be forced to pretend I appreciate that and reassure him that I don’t think he’s an asshole before he will even consider leaving me alone. Either that or he’s going to call me a fucking stuck-up cunt and tell me how I think I’m too good for everybody but really I’m fat and ugly and need to get over myself ’cause he would never hit on someone as nasty as me. I don’t even want to deal with that shit. I just want to have a cigarette and go back inside with Al and Gemellen. So I need to figure out how to respond to this as effectively as possible. Except…you know what? Screw it. I don’t want to talk to him.”

Only after all that did I say, “I don’t want to talk to you.”

That’s why I was so stunned when he respected that. I’ve tried the simple truth—I don’t want to talk to you—before, and it’s never, ever worked out like that. Usually, expressing how you feel in plain English buys you at least five more minutes of increasingly uncomfortable conversation you never wanted in the first place.

And so I was grateful to him. The “Thank you!” popped out of my mouth instantly, instinctively. Like dude had done me a service by respecting my freakin’ wishes. And then I felt like a huge idiot, of course. But hey, feeling like an idiot in peace is way better than talking to a strange guy who thinks my mere presence in a public space obligates me to feign interest.

And you know, the worst part is, my boyfriend was sitting right by the window inside, a foot away from me but totally unaware of what was going on. I think about that a lot—how Al, who knows everything else about my daily life intimately, never gets to witness this part of it. Because of course they don’t do it when you’re with a guy. (And that fact right there should put paid to any argument that they weren’t hitting on you, they didn’t mean anything by it. Really? Okay, well then why don’t you get in my face and demand a conversation while my 6’2″ boyfriend is standing next to me? I mean, you’re just being friendly, right? He’s a really nice guy! You’d like him!)

And that’s one of the problems, I think, for good guys, potential allies, trying to process what women are saying about this shit. When we talk about getting hit on by strange men, the good guys think of their own experiences with hitting on women—how much courage it takes to strike up a conversation, how humiliating it is to get shot down, how they’re always polite and respectful and quick to back off when it goes badly. So they assume we’re just misunderstanding or overreacting. But the thing is, we’re not talking about those guys at all. We like those guys. Sometimes we even date those guys after meeting them in bars. We’re talking about a category of guys those guys almost never get to see in action—but whom we see in action literally every single day, if we live in cities and leave our apartments alone.

I know how hard it can be to get your head around the fact that you’re part of a broader group that frequently does display a pattern of assholishness, while also being part of a smaller subgroup that doesn’t. A couple of years ago, I was involved in a committee dust-up that resulted in accusations of racism against me and a few other liberal white women. We were all appalled, offended, mortified by being classified as racists, since that truly had nothing to do with the decision in question (to give control of a project to the white woman who volunteered first instead of the black woman who volunteered second). And from there, it was a depressingly short leap for all of us to, “She’s crazy! She’s hysterical! She’s got such a huge fucking chip on her shoulder, she can’t even see logic!”

Hmm. Where have I heard all that before?

Because it occurred to me that I’d heard all that before, it also occurred to me that this woman calling me a racist was, above all, really hurt and frustrated by this decision. The underlying problem was still that she didn’t realize someone had volunteered before she had, and she assumed we were making that part up to cover our racist asses. So in this particular case, she really was wrong—but she also really was hurt. And when I thought about it that way for five seconds, I was able to see that she didn’t pull the “racist” accusation out of thin air. Where this particular situation was concerned, yeah, she had—but in the context of her life experience? This undoubtedly did look a lot like part of an ugly, very real pattern. It was an honest mistake.

So I decided to take one more whack at reaching out to her, after things had gotten pretty fucking nasty and we’d all given up any hope of having a civilized conversation. Instead of continuing trying to explain myself via e-mail, which had not gone well at all, I approached her in person. I said, one more time, that this was all an incredible misunderstanding, and we’d communicated poorly, and all of us on the committee felt terrible about the whole thing. I said I was really sorry she got hurt, and sorry that we hadn’t done a better job of communicating what was really happening.

And, because her life experiences have bloody well enabled her to tell the difference, she looked at my face and knew I wasn’t shitting her.

“Wow,” she said. “Thank you. I did not expect that.”

Which is pretty much exactly how I felt when that guy walked away from me instead of sticking around to either call me an egotistical cunt or insist that I recognize how nice he really was.

Sometimes, feminist women do mess up and attribute sexist or threatening motivations to men who truly had none. If you’re the man on the receiving end of that mistake, I’m sure it feels fucking awful, just like it felt fucking awful for me to be called a racist. But this is exactly what people mean when they say “Check your privilege.” They mean it is far more likely this person got it wrong once but right the other 99 times out of 100 than it is that this person is hysterically overreacting to a wholly imagined problem. It means you don’t get to see the problem they’re reacting to, the blatant pattern, in your own daily life—so for you, this one experience feels huge and representative, while for the person who doesn’t share your privilege, it’s a drop in the fucking bucket. And if you can keep that in mind, you can probably reach out and fix things with that person, who is probably entirely reasonable underneath the veneer of defensiveness she’s developed with damned good reason.

I still think that guy I thanked falls under the category of “asshole,” not “good guy striking up a conversation”—and you’d better believe I’ve learned the difference over time. This one just happened to be an asshole who, shockingly, knew when to quit. And that’s the thing that guys who do know when to quit—and when not to start, and how to approach a woman without being categorized as an asshole in the first place—have trouble grasping. It is a shock when a guy hears what you say and backs off. It is unusual. It is a departure from the pattern you experience every day. It’s enough to overwhelm you with gratitude, even when the guy really was an asshole in the first place.

So if you could keep that in mind the next time you feel like dismissing a woman as hysterical, irrational, overreacting? That would be awesome.

Thank you in advance.

22 thoughts on “Gratitude

  1. I’m also stunned when “I don’t want to talk to you” actually works the way it’s supposed to. Then again, I absolutely refuse to engage with people who argue back to that statement (how much clearer an indication of arseholiness can you get than someone who is blatantly disrespecting a clearly articulated personal boundary?).

  2. Erik, I’m glad.

    glittertrash, I refuse to engage in principle, too, but sometimes it’s hard for me to enforce personal boundaries–either because of socialization (“I can’t be rude!”) or logistics (“If I walk away, where do I go?”).

  3. Excellent post, Kate!!!

    Nothing of import to add. Only wanted to say that it reminded me of when I first came out as lesbian (ages and a reincarnation ago!) and I was at this straight club with a woman I had a crush on when this stranger–a guy, of course–took it upon himself to join us at our table. Totally uninvited, he just sat down and started talking to her.

    She was more straight-identified than not (although she later seduced me one night and thus was the first woman I ever slept with) and she started chatting away with him. And I felt like total shit.

    Everything was so new for me at the time, it was really difficult to sort out my feelings and it wasn’t until much later that I thought to myself, “What the fuck?! What made him think that it was ok to just sit down, uninvited, and start hitting on her?!”

    Now I’m living in the world as a guy and find myself at a loss most of the time on how to get a date. My experience as a woman, first, then as queer, second, hasn’t prepared me to operate in the straight world. And, truth be told, I don’t want operate or find a date in the straight world! I want a queer woman to fall in love with me. But I’m invisible to dykes.

    Alas, it’s something I didn’t think through very well before I transitioned—not that I could’ve done anything else!

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  5. Brynn, I can’t even fathom trying to navigate the world as a man after being socialized as a girl/woman. You’re a brave soul.

    If it’s any consolation, I don’t understand dating in the “straight world,” either–not because I’m coming from the queer world, but because I’m a loud, fat, feminist with a mouth like a sailor and confidence in my intelligence. Oddly enough, that’s not what the average straight guy seems to be looking for.

    But like you, I can’t be anything else. And fortunately, I’ve stumbled upon a handful of guys who were neither average nor looking for someone who was; the current one is quite awesome. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that you stumble across a woman who’s looking for someone just like you, whether she’s straight- or queer-identified.

  6. Wow, this was a really fantastic post. I had a similar experience recently, and I was so shocked that the guy respected my request that for five minutes, I wondered if I should have talked to him after all — because what a rare guy he must be! Then I was utterly disgusted with myself, of course, for being so grateful that he treated me as I SHOULD be treated that I actually considered backtracking! Gah. Anyway, it’s great to read about this, and to hear such a common female experience articulated so incredibly clearly and productively.

  7. Thanks, Emma. And I TOTALLY hear you about wondering if you should have talked to the guy! That wasn’t my experience in this case, but yeah… it’s like, “Oh, wait, you’re not an asshole? Then that must make me a total bitch!” There’s not much in-between, is there?

  8. Wow, reading your post and comments wore me out. Brynn – Like most men I can’t relate to women’s feelings about getting hit on and you opened my eyes on that. Then I read what Brynn had to say and wow again, I didn’t see that coming. If you are either a man or a women and are cordial even when others are not, then there is no reason to fault yourself. Thank god I am married and my wife and I can piss each other off and neither of us feel one bit of remorse about it. Thanks for a great read.

  9. Nicely done. I’ve been that asshole, and I’ve become less of one. I struggle with my priv, and it’s always good to hear a well articulated insight like yours. I’ve bookmarked you!

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  11. This is a marvelous post, and timely… I just read an local advice column in which a woman wrote in and said Dear columnist, how do I get strange men to stop talking to me? The columnist essentially responded, Gee it must be tough to be so attractive that people hit on you every day! Get over it.
    Sure, unsolicited conversations on the street are a pretty mild form of harassment. At the same time, the initiation of some sorts of conversation is *completely* embedded in a system of invisible privilege, reinforced by that system of politeness that requires us to capitulate. Case in point: recently a man stopped me on the street, apparently to ask for the time, but actually to pay me a compliment. I thanked him but I really wanted to get on home, so I excused myself by saying I was embarrassed. (It’s not you, it’s me!) He apologized for making me uncomfortable, and suggested we make up by kissing on the cheek. And I did. For NO reasons other than he was being so superficially kind and respectful, that he was going to let me walk away unmolested when we finished this exchange, and that I might hurt his feelings if I didn’t comply. When I walked away and had a second for this to sink in, I was FURIOUS.
    So naturally, this post really struck a cord for me. Thank you for articulating the situation and its implications so well.

  12. Kate, you inspired me to say something about guys hitting on women today on my blog. I said it in my own stupid way but when my son is old enough to understand, I need to tell him how a lot of women feel about being approaced my unknown men.

  13. Atatude, Adam, Tanglethis: Thanks!

    Adam and Atatude, thanks for being guys willing to listen.

    Tanglethis, when I was in my late teens, I was standing outside a store while my (male) friends went in, and a random guy came up and asked me for a hug. I was brand new to the big city, so… I gave him one. While I was doing that, my friends came out, saw this, ripped me away from him and started screaming, “What the fuck are you doing?”– at both him and me. I was like, “Dudes, it’s okay. He just wanted a hug.” My friends thought I was the rube to end all rubes (which I kind of was), and couldn’t believe the nerve of that guy.

    To this day, I don’t know if he wanted to feel my tits, steal my wallet, or really just get a hug. All I know is, it never even crossed my mind to say no.

  14. Thanks for this post (I’m obviously way late to the post but am very glad that I came across it). I always feel like I’m being rude as well if I don’t respond nicely to unwanted attention. One time I was out with my boyfriend (at the time) and this drunk guy comes blazing towards us and starts talking to me. He wasn’t rude, but I just didn’t want to talk to a random drunk dude on the street. Instead of helping me, my boyfriend got upset when I gave the guy a fake name (he just kept saying–I know you from somewhere, what’s your name?? over and over). My boyfriend called me a mean liar. Oh, okay. Thanks for taking the side of drunk dude who doesn’t know the difference and eventually stumbled off to bug someone else.
    Recently I was at an art exhibit and an older gentleman approached me. He seemed really nice, but talked to me for about 20 minutes and the exhibit was closing–I just wanted to say “please, sir, I don’t mean to be rude but I wanted to see more of the exhibit before they close. So if you’ll excuse me…” Meanwhile he started discussing politics and then asked for an address so he could send some articles to me that he had written. I gave him my work address. He sent me a big old package with a mix tape and pictures. Now, call me crazy, but I feel bad for not responding to him. He may be well-meaning and really outgoing–and that’s how he meets friends. But I’m worried that if I respond at all–even a postcard–that he’ll take it as reason to hunt me down and stalk me. This stuff sucks. I wish I had been taught to be a polite yet firm woman instead of–always be nice! You must be nice even (and especially) at your own expense.

  15. Hey – I followed the link from the comments at BitchPhD. One of the many things I appreciate about this post is how it makes explicit (in the fourth paragraph) the little running commentary in your head at those moments.

    It’s hard to step back and get perspective like that, and it’s hard to contextualize the incidents that occur in your own life as part of a larger social pattern. Thank you for doing that, and doing it so insightfully.

  16. I find it interesting that the other side is so rarely discussed.

    I’m a nice guy and I understand that I don’t fit in the category of men that you are speaking about because I listen to women and respect their personal space and their wants. While it’s true I do talk to women at bars, I make the assumption they are there to meet guys, and if that assumption is incorrect I leave them alone.

    But now, the other side I’m talking about is what happens to us, the nice guys. Often we are bypassed in potential relationships because we don’t show our interest clearly enough or our qualities that make us nice guys aren’t as attractive as the excitement that assholes can offer. Often this is because we are disappointed with assholes or disturbed by them, so we go out of our way to accentuate the differences between us and them.

    Occasionally though, we do get into relationships, and sometimes with women who would prefer the asshole. So they string us along, use us for our time and money we provide for their entertainment or sustenance. And then what? When they find an asshole that has some excitement for them, off they go, either without explanation or worse, only responding again when they are tired of the excitement and want to get back to getting free meals.

    So where does that leave the nice guy after a while? We either give up hope, slug onward being used, or start to believe that being the asshole is actually the way to go. Why would we not? We’re smart, we see that we get no rewards and all punishment while assholes seem (at least how we see it) to get all rewards and no punishment. So why would we continue being the nice guy instead of the asshole?

    Even nice guys with female friends end up down the same path. Ask a female friend what you should do or what you’re doing wrong and you’ll get a variety of different answers. Either there is no clear indicator of interest, or more likely, women don’t actually know what they want. And yet, the assholes who don’t treat women with respect always seem to get what they want. Further conditioning to be like the assholes.

    My personal theory for resolution on this is for a cultural shift. I think women should take the aggressor role. If you’re into a guy, go up to him and directly tell him. Does this go against everything you’ve been taught your whole life? Yes. But it’s 2009 now, we don’t have to play by the old rules anymore. Too shy? Welcome to the world the good guys live in. If we have to suck it up and do it anyway, despite our fear of rejection and fear of being considered an asshole, well you should too.

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  18. I feel the same way when a women just says “I don’t want to talk to you”. First off, I feel immense gratitude. I don’t want to make things more awkward. It gives me a clear and reasonable answer. I just say “ok, thank you” and go off, or maybe I’ll say “have a nice day/evening” too as I leave.

    It’s only happened once or twice. I am really and truly grateful when it does happen too. I’ve got asperger’s, which severely hampers my nonverbal interpersonal skills (not to say that I haven’t been working hard to improve them, but that I just don’t pick up on nonverbal cues). The problem I always had, especially as a teenager, was that I was acting creepy in some way, but had no idea. People wouldn’t tell me, they’d just shun me. It wasn’t until an adult mentor of mine took me aside one day and said “you’re doing x, it creeps people out.” that I could begin to understand and change it.

    Maybe it’s just around here (SF Bay Area, geek mecca) but there are a lot of guys like me who are trying (and sometimes failing) to be respectful and really just need a clear and direct “no”. A good thwack from the clue-by-four can always be helpful.

  19. Someone just posted a link here from their own blog. Really struck a chord with me. Thanks for describing and exploring a very familiar scenario. You did it very well.

    Cheers,
    Alice

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