On navigating the world as an intimidating-looking guy.
I’m a big guy. Six-two, two-forty, and my apologies to those who use the metric system. I have big shoulders, big hands, and a voice that’s been described as “booming”. I’m everyone’s first call when they need to move a sofa. I’ve got a shaved head because I’m balding and I look better without hair than with it. (What can I say, I have size, but I also have vanity.)
This is a privilege in most respects. People take me seriously, people defer to me, and I fill out a suit well. Even more helpful, I can go just about anywhere and nobody will threaten me with violence, because just by existing, I imply that I can bring more violence to a situation than most people are comfortable with.
And that means that I make people nervous sometimes. Especially women.
It’s something I see quite often: I’ll walk down the street, or board an elevator, or be waiting in line, and I’ll see people’s body language shift. Parents will make sure their children are in arm’s reach, women will shift their stances to keep me in their peripheral vision, men will size me up and keep their hands free, all in case I turn out to be a threat.
Now, on one level, this is frustrating and mildly insulting. After all, I’m really NOT a threat; I’m perfectly harmless and just trying to go about my business. But of course, these folks don’t know that. My inner life and basic harmlessness is not visible to them. I suppose I could try to inform them, but let’s face it, a strange guy who spontaneously blurts out “I’m not going to kill anyone here!” is actually much, much creepier than one who doesn’t do that.
The fact is, when I see a big guy I don’t know, I tend to keep one eye on him myself. I can’t blame anyone else for doing the same. A lot of people are hurt and killed every day by guys fitting my description, and while I’m not one of them, that’s not an assumption everyone makes.
A brief note on the relation of race to this problem: I’m well aware that my perceived menace would be much higher if I was black. The reactions to me, and the frustration and insult I felt, would be worse in ways I can’t even imagine. I am comparatively lucky. Nevertheless, the fact is that I don’t like scaring people when I don’t want to.
So that puts me in a tricky position. I don’t want to scare people, but just by existing, I do. So how do I mitigate the effect of my demeanor?
A lot of it is just cultivating awareness, the kind that serves just as well for self-defense, the simple practice of noticing what the people around you are doing. Does the person in front of me in line hunch her shoulders a bit when I get behind her? Does the person approaching me on the street move a bit to the side so I won’t pass within arm’s reach? What part of the elevator does someone move toward? If I know what someone’s scared of, I know how to not push those buttons.
I never come between someone smaller than me and the only exit to a room, especially an elevator. I smile politely when I make eye contact, then I break it. If I need to ask someone for something, the right time or change for a dollar, I first ask from outside arm’s reach. I check my body language to make sure I’m not making anyone feel trapped or cornered. I take my hands out of my pockets if I think someone might be afraid I’m going to pull a knife or a gun. I apologize if I bump into someone, or even if I just come close to bumping into someone.
This isn’t a form of oppression being visited on me by the paranoid. This is a slightly expanded version of what I was raised to consider common courtesy. It is, where I come from, basic good manners not to frighten other people or make them uncomfortable unnecessarily. If you scare someone, you apologize, but you try not to scare them in the first place, right? We’re all on the same page there, I hope?
An acquaintance of mine once did a good job explaining (for men) the low-level fear most women have to deal with on a daily basis. With apologies for a poor paraphrase, what she said was basically this: “Imagine that every time you go out your door, you notice that around half the people in the world are a lot bigger and stronger than you. And these huge people are so known for hurting people like you that there’s a special word for how they hurt you. And you know that around 25% of people like you will be hurt like that at least once, like it or not. Would you honestly make the same decisions in navigating the world?”
We can argue about whether this is fair or just or reasonable, but frankly I consider that irrelevant. What it is is the facts on the ground in the real world. Women are afraid too much of the time, and that’s terrible. Anything I can do to make other people less scared is worth doing, because the world’s a hard enough place as it is without me helping.
So yes. I dress in a manner that distinguishes me from the Neo-Nazi guys in the big-white-shaved-head-dude demographic. I wave people through the turnstile ahead of me. I stand on the bus rather than sit where I’d make someone feel trapped. I don’t harass or moon or otherwise bother people who already have enough troubles without me hassling them. When I want to pay a compliment to a lady, I take the extra two seconds to phrase it respectfully.
None of this is crippling to me, especially as it’s the flip side of what, as I said above, is basically a big ol’ privilege. Life is easier for me in a lot of ways because I’m a large, capable fellow. It’s also a bit harder in some consistent, frustrating ways. But I’d rather have to go through a little bit of awkwardness and hassle if it spares other people fear and paranoia, even for a few minutes.
I don’t claim to be perfect. We’re all unthinkingly rude or inappropriate sometimes; it’s part of the human condition. The trick is to be aware of how you are most likely to make other people uncomfortable, and try to minimize that out of respect for them. So for me, that means managing my menace.