For many women, a common courtesy invites danger

Sarah Marshall probably made a mistake when she was riding on the bus. She said “hello” back to someone who said “hello” to her.

Writing on The Week today, Marshall describes a typical day for many women: a day when they can’t be left alone when trying to go about their business.

“What’s your name?” he said. I told him. He told me his. I shook his hand. I’m almost certain I smiled. I usually do.

Then I put my headphones back in and picked my book up and went back to reading. He continued to stare at me. He waved his hands to get my attention again. He stomped his feet on the bus aisle, I suppose so that, if I couldn’t hear him, I would feel the vibration.

I did hear him, and I did feel the vibration, but I carried on reading. I did not make the conscious decision to ignore him so much as decide that this was simply the best way to end the interaction and keep it from escalating.

The man kept staring at me. He got up and sat down next to me, and leaned toward me to see what I was reading, and when I got up to get off the bus even though it wasn’t quite my stop yet he stood up and waited beside me, still staring, which disturbed me much more, in a way I could not have expected, than his presence in my personal space.

I’m more used to that. The staring, though, suggested some deeper conviction. He had been looking at me for 10 minutes, without looking away, in a way that suggested I had something he needed. Most disturbing of all was how I began to wonder, after getting off the bus, whether I really did.

She wondered whether it was the dress she was wearing because she wore the dress in a bar last year and was assaulted.

… at one point that a man had reached out and started stroking my hair. When I didn’t pay attention to him, he grabbed a handful and pulled.

“Please don’t do that,” I said.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said.

“You don’t get to touch a woman without her permission,” I said, and left — not the bar, because all my friends were there, but for a different part of the bar, because the hair-puller, a white guy somewhere in his 50s, seemed drunk and maybe in a bad state. I didn’t think he would bother me again. He didn’t.

So maybe, I thought, it wasn’t the dress — and then realized that it couldn’t have been the dress, because, of course, it’s never the dress. Noticing someone’s body is an instinct. Staring at a stranger, touching them, following them, deciding that your interest in a body overrides its owner’s, is a choice.

Marshall was just trying to enjoy the evening with friends. She was just trying to get home on the bus.

The act of minding your own business shouldn’t involve wondering what you did wrong.

What bothered me about being stared at on the bus was not the experience itself so much as my own sense of vulnerability. I said hello and began an encounter I didn’t have the capacity to deal with at that moment; I made contact with someone desperate and then found myself unable to navigate the straits of that desperation safely.

It made me worry about my own capacity to be present in the world and ensure my own safety. It made me feel stupid. It frightened me, in a way these interactions normally don’t, and made me wonder if I was a fatuous child.

I thought about this as I walked the dog in the dark this morning. As usual in my “Groundhog Day” routine, a jogger approached at roughly the same spot a jogger passes us at the same time every day. It’s the same jogger. Every day.

“Good morning,” I said.

She stared straight ahead.

  • Gary F

    I still open door for women, its just what I was raised to do. For a third of them, I get a smile and thank you, and we go on our way. A third of them chuckle, either because its old fashion or because they don’t want the door opened for them, and a third give me a glare or don’t make eye contact. The creeps in the world make it very difficult to be courteous in this world.

    • jon

      Back in the 90’s my father worked in a garage for tractor trailers… the secretary (a woman) approached his portion of the shop so he opened the door for her… She threw a fit and demanded to be “treated the same as he’d treat any one else in the shop!” so he slammed the door shut on her, and put is 1-2 ton tool box in front of it…

      Equality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

      • Perhaps he should have said, “This IS the way I treat everyone else.”

      • Anna

        There’s a big difference in being treated like a “lady” and being treated like a “woman.”

        I tend to smile at most everyone because it’s just a nice thing to do. I also smile and say hello when I’m passing a co-worker in the hallway. The same goes for my apartment building. Since I don’t ride public transportation very often, I can’t speak to how women are treated there.

        Opening the door, helping with heavy packages, giving up your seat so she can sit down, in my opinion come under the heading of being treated like a lady.

        Ogling a stranger, making unwanted advances, calling a stranger “Sweetie”, “Honey” and other terms of endearment are treating the person like a “woman.” In other words, like a sex object.

        A recent article stated that women will have equal pay with men by—drum roll please—2059!

        Women’s equal rights is a double edged sword. As women gain more equality, those “courtesies” will eventually disappear.

        Call me old fashioned, but I find it rather sad that what was once considered a courtesy and a sign of respect has been reduced to an overture for sex.

        • jon

          6 days ago right here on news cut I got chewed out for using the word “Lady” to describe people of the female gender I knew is high school.

          • Anna

            You can treat me like a lady and call me a lady anytime, Jon.

          • Veronica

            I have no idea what “treat me like a lady” means without it being things that enforce the notion that women are 2nd to men.

          • jon

            I don’t know either… But it seemed impolite to ask (and as a guy I should just know, right?)… so I was just going to smile and be polite to people named Anna when I come across them and hope for the best.

            It’s pretty much the same approach I take now with most people, but with the added twist of trying to discretely see if a name tag says “Anna” or not… (probably going to get slapped when some one things I’m staring at their chest… Life is tricky like that sometimes.)

          • rallysocks

            Also, I wouldn’t take too much stock of that particular chewer…

          • JamieHX

            Why, because we disagree about whether women should dress in provocative way at work?

          • JamieHX

            You call this being “chewed out”?

            “Calling a woman or a girl a ‘young lady’ is a judgment
            of her character, deportment, dress, etc. – judgments
            based on antiquated, sexist notions of what a woman should be, should act like, should look like, in order to be deemed a ‘lady.’”
            Ooh… sensitive!

          • jon

            Are you getting offended at my use of the words “Chewed out” and “young lady” and then calling me sensitive?

          • jAMIEhx

            Where did you get the idea that I was OFFENDED about your use of the term “chewed out?” I was simply disagreeing with that characterization.
            I didn’t chew you out about using “young lady.” I EXPLAINED why it’s an offensive term.

        • Kassie

          The thing is, I don’t want those courtesies, I want equal pay, respect and safety. I want for women younger than me to not have to hide their engagement rings when they interview for a job and for men to stop talking over me in meetings.

          • Susan WB

            This. This. A thousand times, this!

        • rallysocks

          For me, those courtesies should be extended to all people. If something is too heavy for me to carry, I’m going to ask for some help in carrying it. If I know someone has limitations on exerting themselves (male or female) I’m going to offer to help them or let them sit. I don’t appreciate someone offering to do these things just because I’m a woman. I can cut up my own food now, too and while it was nice when mom did that for me, well… And if we’d be more courteous to each other across the board, we wouldn’t even have to talk about his part of ‘equality’ because it’s taking away from the real problem as Kassie outlines below. As Tim McGraw says, “Always be humble and kind.”

          There’s an age gap between many of us on here, but “what was once considered a courtesy and a sign of respect” was never a ‘courtesy’ or ‘respectful’–it was an assumption that women of a certain standing were to be treated as frail little things that needed to be sheltered from the cruelties of life. Not just a gender issue, but class issue as well.

          And on a practical note, I’m asking Mr. Sox to show me how to do more things, take responsibility for more of the ‘man’ things around the house and yard, cuz, there may be a time when he’s not going to be here. And I really, really don’t want to have to find a boy or a man to do it for me until we are both re-united in that big sock drawer in the sky.

          • Kassie

            Regarding your practical note, if I do have to find someone to do it around the house because my partner leaves, then I want to make a wage equal to that of a man so I can afford to hire someone to do it if I can’t.

            (And truth is, equal wage isn’t so much an issue with me because I’m in a union, which ensures not only that men and women are paid equally, but also that people of color are paid equally, which is a huge issue too. The gap I see at my place of work is in promotions and respect.)

          • JamieHX

            They’re not “‘man’ things” — they’re the things husband/partner currently does.

      • JamieHX

        “…She threw a fit and demanded to be ‘treated the same as he’d treat any one else in the shop!’ so he slammed the door shut on her…”
        I wonder if she really threw a fit and demanded, or if that was just the twist he put on the encounter. If she was given to throwing fits and demanding things at work, she wouldn’t have lasted long (i.e., she would have been fired).

        • jon

          1) It was union shop, most of them were back then (I don’t know about now), getting fired was not an easy task.
          2) She was the secretary, in a shop, it was her job to demand things from mechanics. Throwing fits probably wasn’t required, but It probably didn’t hurt.

    • Zachary

      I’m a chronic door-holder as well, not just for women, but for anyone who is less than, say 12 feet behind me. Seems rude not to at least hold it so it doesn’t slam in their face. I usually get a Thank You, but that is never my goal. Just something polite in an increasingly un-polite world.

    • BReynolds33

      I hold the door / open the door for people. Doesn’t matter if you are male or female. If you are close enough to me that we might get to the door in a reasonably similar amount of time, I open it and hold it for you.

      • Gary F

        That’s what I am trying to do.

    • Zachary

      What’s considered the most appropriate or polite way to hold open an entrance vestibule door (where you have a double set of doors)? I find that if I stand outside and “doorman” the first set, that leaves me unable to dash back inside and get the second set. Very impractical if the person is carrying something or pushing a stroller. However, if I stand inside, and reach out to hold the door open, until the other person has either grabbed the door or body-checked it so it won’t crash back on them; while allowing me the time to open and “doorman” the second set, it leaves a bit of an encroachment into personal space and may also give off a “hostile” body language.

  • Barton

    “Sarah Marshall probably made a mistake when she was riding on the bus. She said “hello” back to someone who said “hello” to her.”

    I am sure you don’t mean it this way, but this sounds like the start of victim blaming. It would have been fine if she hadn’t said hello. Well, that isn’t true, and puts the burden on the potential victim and on the person potentially behaving inappropriately/dangerous/etc. I know that is what is going through her mind in the snipits you shared: is it my fault for wearing this dress? No, it [explitive deleted] is not.

    As a woman, you don’t say “hello” back the result is you get yelled at and called horrible things. And many times they still follow you. I hate it. I’m that person who smiles at everyone usually. Or maybe I should say used to. Now I don’t. Yes, you and I may pass each other everyday on the way to work (as happens with about 6 people I see every day as I cycle into work), but I can’t acknowledge your presence b/c it could be seen as an invitation for sex. It’s crap.

    • BReynolds33

      If you think that opening line is victim blaming, I think you are missing the point. Try again, and this time, give the author a little bit of credit, and the benefit of the doubt, and think to yourself, “could this be interpreted another way? Am I bringing a bias into this?”

      It is a literary device. We all know it wasn’t her fault. We all know that smiling at someone shouldn’t be (and isn’t) a mistake.

      Start over, add in the context of an article that is intended to prove the point of your entire comment, and see if it doesn’t have a different meaning now.

      • Barton

        Perception is everything, and I know – which I said – that he didn’t mean it that way. But when you have judges saying women are to blame for their own rapes for not keeping their legs closed, you cannot say this is fine b/c it’s a literary device.

        • FTR, the reaction you had is EXACTLY the reaction I wanted readers to have.

    • You have to read her article. Because that’s the point. SHE’s wondering what she did wrong. Obviously, she didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just pathetic.

    • Veronica

      Hi Barton,

      I don’t think I’ve seen you comment here before. Yes, what Sarah experienced is crap, but you won’t find a prominent male blogger in a major news outlet who has written more about the hell that it can be a female in this society. Don’t yell at Bob. He’s using his voice to elevate ours.

  • John O.

    I’ve reached the point where I don’t even bother to try anymore. I smile a bit–if I make eye contact at all with co-workers of either gender outside of my immediate work area. Same on the bus/LRT/skyway. I’m going to go to great lengths to avoid any semblance of doing anything or acting improper; I just want to be left alone.

  • jon

    Getting on the elevator, 3 people (one man and two women) are already in the elevator when I board, floors 3 and 8 are illuminated on the panel, 3 of them laugh and talk about something (maybe sports?), I don’t know any of them and have nothing to say on the topic, I hit 6.

    On floor 3 one man and one woman exit the elevator… and the posture of the second woman changes, as the doors close, she starts shifting from side to side and staring off, no more smiling no more laughing…

    Microaggression… rape culture… etc…

  • Mike

    In general, I would agree that women have more to fear in interactions like the one described. However, it doesn’t only happen to women. About 10 years ago, I was verbally accosted on a local city bus when I wouldn’t pay attention to a man who seemed a bit off but was persistent in trying to involve me in conversation. He eventually got up in my face and issued some sort of threat (I can’t remember what) before getting off at the next stop.

    A friend of mine (a short, thin guy, for what it’s worth) was actually attacked one night. A guy got off at the same stop, followed him for a short distance on a dark residential street, then assaulted him and demanded his phone. Whether out of sheer terror or whatever, my friend fought him and the guy ultimately just ran off. It could have ended much worse, obviously.

    It’s only partly a gender issue. Bottom line is there are people around who are looking for an opportunity to attack someone.

    • John

      It happens to all regardless of gender, etc. But the whole point is that it happens SO frequently to women compared to men. That’s the problem.

      Common thieves will target whomever looks like an easy mark – regardless of gender (though women may be preferred because of cultural perception).

      The issue is that it’s not common thieves that we’re talking about : It’s guys in suits on buses (or elevators), guys going home from work, guys driving past, guys commenting on their female coworkers in wholly inappropriate ways. it’s EVERYWHERE for women. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it on the street. I’ve seen it in business meetings. I’ve seen it in bars. I’ve seen it in groups of men out together when there aren’t even women around. It’s everywhere, and it’s pathetic, really.

      • Mike

        I don’t deny that it happens in various contexts, but I have to say that my experience has been different from yours. In two decades of working in corporate America, I don’t know that I’ve ever witnessed that sort of behavior in a business meeting. I suppose it depends to a large extent on the particular corporate culture.

        • Veronica

          It happens, you just don’t know what it looks like.

          • Mike

            Right: I’m blind, deaf, and dumb. Good argument.

          • Veronica

            No, that’s NOT what I said. I said that it’s often subtle enough and so ingrained that it’s not always easy to see unless it’s explained to you or it’s your lived experience.

          • Don’t take this the wrong way but men have to start asking a question they never, ever ask: “What might I be missing here?”

            So when you say I’m blind, deaf and dumb, I think we have to at least acknowledge that on this particular subject, we MIGHT be.

        • Veronica

          I do not want to get into the politics, but I read this last night– this is emblematic of what women experience in almost every professional environment. Ignore who the boss is, and just read it knowing it’s probably happening under your nose too.

          • Kassie

            It even happens when the boss is a woman! I’ve seen women in power ignore women subordinates over and over, then praise the man when he steals the idea.

          • John

            Being a woman does not automatically exempt you from being a power hungry A-hole. 🙂

          • Mike

            I agree with the strategy these women adopted. It sounds like the right one for the environment they were in. But circumstances differ. By the time I was a young person in corporate America, there were already various high-ranking women in the company I worked for. Maybe this was unusually progressive for the era (1990s), but in that environment women were certainly heard.

            My main takeaway from that experience is that high-level corporate women are very much like their male counterparts: overly aggressive, assertive to a fault, and self-centered. We’d all be better off if we could change that model, rather than offering it up as something to aspire to for either gender.

        • John

          I have seen it much more in some areas than others – certain industries jump to mind right away. In the large company I work for, I see the culture changing, and I see virtually nothing of this sort happening – at least not overtly, and not frequently internally. I don’t deny that it could easily be happening, and I’m oblivious or not part of the circles where it happens (the two groups I’ve worked with for the last several years have been close to even on the gender numbers – shifting a bit one way or the other as the groups turn over. No small feat in a science field where the overall workforce itself is heavily biased toward male, and was not obviously intentional as far as I can tell).

          I’ve seen it (as a customer, not as an employee) much more commonly in meetings with companies other than the one I work for. It’s almost a part of many sales pitches – intentionally or not – apparently designed to make the customer more comfortable and feel like a “buddy” to the salesperson. To the extent that the salespeople are the most visible extension of a corporation, that bothers me, and I sincerely hope it’s not happening in the company I work for (i’m buried deep inside, and don’t get out much).

    • Natalie

      The thing about your comment, Mike, is that your incident happened to you 10 years ago and you still remember it. The situation you described happens to me, and many women, on an almost daily basis.

  • John

    I struggle with some facets of this in my own life. (Not the creepy factor. I like to think I’m less creepy than most, but that’s just my opinion. But, the line between politeness and interpretation of innocent gestures).

    While I too am a compulsive holder of doors (for all genders, races, religions, etc.), and have been for as long as I can remember, sometimes it’s not appreciated for what it is – a simple gesture of politeness. I have been berated by people in wheelchairs who assume I was singling them out (I was not – frequently, they weren’t even the first or last people I had held that exact door for).

    Where the issue at hand tends to hit me on a personal level is on the shared use trails around my home. I run and bicycle a lot on those trails. If I haven’t overexerted, I tend to smile/nod/say hi to everyone moving the opposite direction. Some folks return the gesture, some ignore/miss it, and some appear to view it as a preamble to an attack.

    The first two groups don’t bother me, but the last one does. It bothers me because I don’t think it’s a sort of natural response, but is a learned response. I think it’s a response that’s a defensive mechanism for people who have had the sorts of experiences that Marshall describes in her essay. And it bugs me. It bugs me because I don’t think that sort of behavior should be so common that sort of learned defense should be so common – but it is. It’s not a response I ever get from my fellow white dudes. It’s a response I get from women, people dressed in more religious garb, people of other ethinic groups. More often from people who are alone.

    I don’t take it personally. I will continue to say nod/wave/say hi/etc. to people I see out and about. I have begun calling out A-hole behavior when I see it (though it’s so ingrained in society that even being aware of it is difficult sometimes, unless it’s egregious). It just makes me sad that it’s so unbelievably common.

    • Veronica

      Really, what women need is for every single guy who sees this kind of garbage to STEP UP and CALL OUT the creeps. So thank you for doing it when you can.

  • Kassie

    Last week there was a good meme going around about what to do if you see someone being harassed. It was specifically directed to is you see a Muslim being harassed, but works for anyone. Basically, if you see a woman obviously being harassed (or a person of color, or a person with a disability, or whatever) you go up to the person and start a completely non-related, not offensive conversation. Get between the jerk and their victim and just start talking about the weather, the bus being late, your favorite restaurant, anything that is easy to talk about and simple. All you “good guys” out there should step and start being actual allies and not just guys who are hurt because you think you are owed a smile because you opened the door for me.

    • Mike

      It’s a worthy and brave thing to do for sure. But should it apply only to men? If, as a woman, you see a Muslim man being singled out and harassed, should you have the same obligation to potentially incur bodily harm to defend a stranger? Your post seems to indicate this is a special obligation for men. That’s not equality.

      • Sara

        It depends on who is doing the harassing. I’m a woman and if a man is doing the harassing I am very hesitant to insert myself into that situation. Too many examples of the violence being then directed at me. It’s all related. But nice with the mention of “equality” – as only a man who doesn’t live with the threat and possibility of violence could suggest!

        • Mike

          My point is that we all live with the threat of violence because our society is very violent. Do you really believe that men don’t fear mugging, assault, or murder? A random man isn’t necessarily better able to defend himself against someone who might become violent than you are. Frankly, it’s sexist to expect him to insert himself in that situation when you wouldn’t.

          • Kassie

            Seriously? No one is saying get into a dangerous situation. The point is if you get in to a conversation you can DEFUSE the situation. Just like I could too. No one said MEN MUST DO THIS! It was a suggestion for men who want to put their words into action. You can continue to let women be harassed on the street. That’s cool.

      • Kassie

        No. I’m saying lots of men on here are saying “I’m one of the good ones” and here’s a way to show you are a good one instead of just fake overtures. I absolutely think it is a responsibility of anyone to do this if they feel it is safe to do so.

    • DJ Wambeke

      I was 100% with you on this comment until the completely unnecessary jab at the “good guys” who might – *gasp* – hold a door. Way to take a gesture that is clearly done in a spirit of respect (even if you think it unnecessary) and turn it into something selfish and sinister (i.e. your “fake overture” comment below). The fact is, the guy that does that for you just might be the same guy who gets between you and a harasser. And for the same reason: he respects you.

      • Kassie

        Is he holding the door open out of respect? Or because he wants a smile? Because the comment above that I was referencing sure made it seem like he wants or deserves acknowledgement of his good doings and doesn’t really care that I’m harassed on the street. But of course, he will tell me that he’s one of the good guys, I’m sure.

        • Laurie K.

          I do not believe that any one the “good guys” who posted that they hold doors open for people feel they “deserve” a smile. I think it is a matter of acknowledging a courtesy ~ they are not demanding a smile for service rendered, They are simply asking you to acknowledge them as a human being, as they did for you when they had the courtesy to open a door. I am befuddled by the whole door issue. I have doors opened for me, I have opened doors for others [including men]. I really do not see this as a gender issue.

  • Sara

    Bob, thank you for giving voice to this topic.

    A few years ago when twitter was a full of the stories of #YesAllWomen, I shared on my personal social media the ways I have modified my behavior to avoid just the type of harassment that Sarah Marshall writes about in detail. I wrote about how I no longer smile at people on the street -even though it’s my “natural” desire and character to be engaged in my community and greet folks with warmth and acknowledgement. Why did I change this core-to-me behavior? Because time and again when it was a man I smiled at it seemed to signal I was inviting more: a vulgar leer, further conversation, an arm draped around my shoulders, even once I ended up getting followed for blocks and finally darted into a coffee shop as I was feeling less safe by the moment. All because of a simple smile. So, I no longer “simply” smile; instead my eyes are straight ahead, my jaw tense on my face, my pace quick. It’s a horrible way to exist in the world but the armor is necessary…I have discovered.

    So many of my male friends read my post and held back from saying something along the lines of “not all men.” Yet, some did ask – how do I show that I am not a threat to you? Sadly, I don’t have a great answer. Cross the street? Avoid eye contact with me? Or, perhaps, show in other ways that you are speaking out against harassment and the aspects of our culture that make life unsafe for women & girls. Like this post Bob, so thank you.

    It’s a damn shame we live in a world where women have to live with the constant threat of violence, changing our very being to adapt to this world. I am also empathetic to the “not all men” who have no way to communicate effectively “I am no threat to you.” Even your friendly smile, Bob, has often been the first sign of harassment when coming from a different male.

    So, for now, I just keep on walking.