I step out of a pub and light up a cigarette. A random guy approaches.
Random guy: Got a smoke?
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]
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.