Do you like it
when random strangers
I have this rule that many people might find incredibly rude, but I stick to it nonetheless.
It is this: If I am sitting alone, wearing my earphones, reading a book or doing both and someone I have never met attempts to engage me in an extended conversation, I get up and leave. I do this for several reasons, including:
1) I don’t want to engage with someone who is clearly disrespectful of my boundaries. My choice to listen to music/audiobook/podcast or read something should be read as a signal that I want to be left alone. If you can’t appreciate this, then you are probably someone I don’t want to talk to in the first place.
2) The type of people most likely to engage me in this situation are almost invariably intoxicated. Intoxicated people are unpredictable. I like being able to predict people’s behaviour. Makes me feel a whole lot safer.
3) The few times I allowed such conversations to happen before I instigated this rule, I almost always ended up sitting there while a drunk person has ranted to me in a manner that spoke to their hatred of other people. I have never once ended up having a nice conversation about puppies, ice cream or the films of Jacques Demy.
4) I have on three different occasions had encounters with strange men in public that escalated from a polite, “Hey, how are you doing?” to my being physically assaulted.
5) Because I don’t want to fucking talk to that person.
I bring this up to explain why I am personally very ambivalent about random people approaching me in public. In certain situations it can be wonderful and has lead to memorable and rewarding experiences, but–for me–all of these involve inherently social contexts where such interactions can be reasonably expected. When it happens randomly, in a situation where I am actively indicating a desire to be left alone, I find it rude and disturbing.
For this reason I found myself incredibly sympathetic to the woman in this video:
Produced for Hollaback, an organization dedicated to fighting street harassment, it features an actress named Shoshana B. Roberts walking through the streets of New York for 10 hours. Filmed by director Rob Bliss, the short video documents many of the comments and unwanted interactions she was forced to deal with in that time. The total came to around 100.
For me, it’s very difficult and uncomfortable to watch. Every time a man talks to Shoshana I squirm, because I can appreciate just how disturbing it can be when a person you don’t know approaches you. Based on my experience, even a seemingly harmless and/or polite greeting can lead to violence down the line. The difference is, I experience such incidents maybe once or twice a month, not every six minutes I’m outside.
Yet many people don’t share my sympathy. Yesterday afternoon on Twitter, as the video began being seen, I was repeatedly confronted with the sentiment that the big problem with the video wasn’t the men, but with Shoshana herself. Many of those comments, they argued, were completely benign or common politeness and it was wrong to suggest through their inclusion that they were examples of harassment. Instead of empathizing with her, they felt sorry for the poor dudes she frosted who were just being nice.
And they might have a point in specific instances involving people who sit on street corners and tell literally everyone they see to “Have a nice day,” but we all know this isn’t what we saw here. These are not cases of indiscriminate good Samaritans attempting to brighten their neighbourhood’s day, but dudes specifically trying to get the attention of a beautiful woman. And she doesn’t want their attention. She doesn’t want to talk to them. Especially since a different guy is saying the same thing to her 10 fucking times an hour. She just wants to be left alone and there is nothing presented here to suggest otherwise. This is not a social situation. She is trying to get from Point A to Point B and she should be able to do so in a way where she feels safe.
I understand how “Have a nice day” can cause just as much anxiety as the dude who screamed and jumped out at me just a few Saturdays back. In his case, I knew he was just an asshole trying to make his friends laugh. I also could take some comfort in knowing I gave him nothing to brag about, since this has happened to me often enough that I’m usually able to avoid flinching or showing other signs of fear. And by “often enough” I mean “a couple times a year” and not “every single time I walk on the sidewalk”.
So, at the risk of not being polite and not being nice, I’m happy to argue that every dude in that video deserves to be there. Because–whatever their intentions–they don’t know what’s going on in Shoshana’s head. They don’t know what she’s experienced that day or throughout her life. They don’t know they aren’t the first person to talk to her that afternoon. They don’t know they’re the 50th. They don’t know anything and when you don’t know anything it’s usually smarter to just shut the fuck up.