Yesterday, I was at a gas station. I had an interaction with an attendant there in which he loudly said something that made me uncomfortable. He commented on my appearance in an exuberantly flirtatious way that I wasn’t cool with. I rather wryly (even though I was screaming at him in my head) pointed out to him that it made me feel uncomfortable and he got upset with me. I stood up for myself and was labeled cranky and rude as a result.
Hoping to find some comfort, I posted about it on facebook. The reaction I got was surprising, to say the least. There were certainly a few female friends who stood up for me and even one male family member who jumped in to my defense, but several men and even a few women took after me with teeth and claws out. It was both painful and humiliating.
Some people took the attendant’s side, saying that he was just trying to be nice and I was rude in return. I agreed that he probably was just trying to be nice, but that doesn’t mean I have to participate in the conversation that made me uncomfortable. “Hello” is one thing. Calling out across a gas station to a woman whose back is turned to say something about her appearance? That’s not just being friendly. When a conversation starts off that way, it can only go downhill. I have no obligation to have a conversation about how cute I am with a strange man at least old enough to be my father. Usually, I just ignore people in those situations and that’s probably what I should have done yesterday. But when you ignore people in those situations, you’re still considered rude, so what’s a girl to do?
A few people thought I should take the comment as a compliment. Had my husband, one of my kids, or a friend complimented me that day on how I looked, I would have said, “Thank you.” These are trusted people I have a relationship with. (I was just wearing jeans and a button down shirt, so none of those people did compliment me yesterday, but I was also not offended by their lack of noticing my mediocre wardrobe.) The thing that added the “creepy” factor to it is that I had never seen this man before in my life. He didn’t even take the time to say “hi” before launching into flirtatious flattery.
Other people got downright irate with me. There were f-bombs, there were accusations that this is as bad as demeaning a man for holding a door, that I think men should just never talk to women because there’s nothing safe to say, etc. It got ugly. I deleted comments. I unfriended some people. Then I deleted the whole stupid post. It was just too unruly and painful after a while.
I was genuinely confused and baffled by the whole situation. Just last week, I had posted a frustration about a roofer’s inappropriate antics as I ran past on a training run. The same people who were slamming me around and shaming me for standing up for myself at the gas station had just a week ago agreed that the roofer was being a jerk. What was the difference?
I’ve spent some time (my husband would argue I’ve spent too much time) reflecting on this situation. I still don’t know that the attendant in this situation meant any harm and I didn’t go to any efforts to try getting him in trouble. He probably just thought he was being nice. But had he said, “Hello, how are you?” instead of launching in about how I look, I would have happily exchanged small talk about the weather.
The problem here lies in the “gray area.” This is a concept a few people – including my husband and my step-dad – pointed out. What the guy said was “gray.” It wasn’t clearly offensive and sexist, but it wasn’t exactly great introductory small talk, either. When it comes to talking to complete strangers, gray area should simply be avoided. My mom always taught my sister and I, “better safe than sorry.” (She also taught us “beans, beans, the musical fruit. . .” but that’s neither here nor there.) If you don’t already have some sort of clear social contract with a person, it’s best to keep “gray” comments – things that could be easily taken in a way you don’t intend – to yourself. It’s just good manners.
The world is scary for women. I tend to be pretty fearless for the most part (except heights. . . I don’t do heights), but for women, every man must be considered a danger until proven otherwise. History suggests that we’d be reckless to think that’s not the case. Men and women alike need to be aware of this. I don’t just teach my daughters about these sorts of social interactions, but I teach my son as well.
When in doubt, don’t say anything beyond “hello” or "excuse me" or other very basic pleasantries or necessary conversation until you are given permission to do so. Here are some examples for those who still struggle with what is OK and what is not OK when men approach women they don’t know.
This one is pretty easy for most people to get on board with. You don’t honk and catcall when driving or walking past women in the street. Doesn’t matter how pretty they are or how provocatively dressed you think they are. It’s not cool. Ever. Never. Not even if you know them. If you know them. . . wave. Otherwise. . . keep on driving silently.
Let me break down a couple things wrong with this one. The first thing is that there is never any excuse for referring to a woman you don’t know as “honey,” “baby,” “sweetie,” or any other diminutive nickname. I’d argue that it’s a no-no for women to do this to men too and it’s even sketchy for women to do this to other women, but it’s a definite no-no for a stranger in a position of physical power (man) talking to a physically less powerful person (woman) to speak down to them in this way.
Another issue here is the insistence that a strange woman say “hi” back if she doesn’t feel like it or an offense taken at a lack of reply. This goes back to a person of power asserting their power over a smaller person. They set a boundary in not replying and you should respect that boundary.
The final problem with this scenario is that gas stations are stinking scary for women. Even the best gas stations are a little skeevy and they are one of the hot-spots for cat-calling, inappropriate comments, and other shady behavior toward woman. Sorry, nice guys, this is just how it is. There is just about nothing you can say to a strange woman at a gas station that’s not going to be slightly creepy. If you have to tell her she left her gas cap open or something, start with “Excuse me, ma’m/miss. . .” and don’t get upset if she doesn’t say any more than “thank you.” to you. She’s not mean, she’s playing it safe.
Dear every man who has ever cat-called, commented on my butt, told me I’m skinny/hot/chunky/whatever, asked for my number, or chased me for a block or two (this happens more often than you’d think) while I’m out training: stop it. I don’t run and/or wear workout clothes for your amusement and I shouldn't have to run indoors or wearing a burka to avoid your leering and inappropriate comments or pick-up lines. I run because I like to. I do it for me.
If you see a runner going past who you don’t know. . . let them run in peace. Unless you’re running too. A friendly (albeit out of breath) “hey” or the runner nod of camaraderie is always ok. If you’re my friend and you see me run past, please feel free to cheer me on or ask how the run is going. I will ask, however, that friends refrain from honking. This has nothing to do with gender interactions. . . it has everything to do with the fact that car horns are startling and make me jump. Don't break my pace. Please. It's bad enough on its own.
Please stop telling women you don't know to smile. You don’t know the day I had. Just because I’m not smiling doesn’t mean I’m not happy or nice. It just means I’m not smiling. Maybe I’m thinking about something I’m going to write that week. Maybe I’m praying or feeling introspective. Maybe I'm just an introvert. Maybe I'm self-conscious about having ugly teeth or a weird smile. Maybe I am in a bad mood, but it’s my mood not yours. That’s great if you genuinely want everyone around you to feel good, but a lack of a fake smile doesn’t mean I am somehow unhappy and dissatisfied with life. And if I'm not happy or satisfied with life, it's my friends and family - not a complete stranger - that I will work through it with. I'm not hanging off the side of a building, I'm just not smiling.
The smile comment is often accompanied by “that pretty face” in some manner or another. I’m beautiful whether I’m smiling or not and I don’t need a stranger to tell me that. If you want to know more about the social implications of telling women on the street to smile, just google “stop telling women to smile.” There are several campaigns out there working against this weird societal hang up.
This happens all the time. It’s essentially what happened to me yesterday. I'll admit, it’s solidly in the “gray” area and that's why it's important to talk about. I have done my time in retail. I’ve been a sales associate both commissioned and salaried. I have worked in management. I get it. You want the customer to like you. It’s your job for the customer to like you. I can tell you from experience, you don’t have to use fake schmoozy flattery to get them to like you. It’s condescending to call grown women “young lady.” It’s inappropriate to refer to a woman you don’t know on the basis of her appearance. It plays into unhealthy stereotypes and social structures to assume that all women swoon over empty praise about how pretty and young-looking they are. Yes, some women really do fall for this. Yes, this has, in our culture, become a widely acceptable form of small talk when men talk to women. That doesn’t make it right and that doesn't mean I have to like it to be a "nice person." That just makes it a gray area in which it’s best to play it safe and simply say, “May I help you?” Genuinely helpful and polite customer service will always get you further with customers and with management.
I don’t think men should never talk to or compliment women. But I do think that men need to be aware that we still live in a world in which women are treated with far less respect in public than men are. In a world where 25% or more of all women have been physically or sexually assaulted, it’s important to stop and think about how men and women interact. It’s important to encourage women to be up front about their boundaries and for others to respect those boundaries. When you don’t know what those boundaries are, stay solidly out of the gray area.
These concepts can and should be applied to talking to any stranger. It’s especially important in regards to gender, but should be remembered when talking to people from other cultures, physical abilities, social statuses, and so on. If it’s gray area and you don’t have a relationship with that person, play it safe. It’s the polite thing to do. It’s the respectful thing to do.