Being new to Chicago, I’ve realized one thing, glaringly and in my face: It’s really hard to meet people organically nowadays. As a person who only really drinks if she’s out with a group (and even then, not much), I miss the organic nature of my relationships in Sioux Falls. One friend introduced another friend to another friend and so on. But in a larger city with a full time job, it can be very hard to meet people and make new friends.
I say that to say this: I get it. I get that it’s really hard to meet people outside of your social circle, and if you’re interested in a relationship or friendship with someone, sometimes the only way to do it is the in person equivalent of cold-calling: you tap them on the shoulder, you smile at them, you ask them what they’re reading. You do any number of things that I, as a polite Midwesterner, was taught were good conversation starters.
But, if you are a man, and the person you are approaching is presenting as female, it’s not so cut and dried.
Let me tell you a story. Last week, I went up into the Loop area of Chicago for a date and to see a friend. The end stop for my train on the return trip is in a suburb that’s not the greatest (though there are definitely worse areas). Still, coming back to this area after dark is worrisome, so I cut the time short with a friend in order to catch an earlier train.
I was one of maybe 10 people in my section of the train. By the time we got to my stop, I was one of three – myself, another woman who had headphones on, and a man who was not the cleanest in the world, with a big mustache and a trucker hat. A few minutes before the stop, all three of us, plus the train employee, gathered in the space by the door.
I made eye contact with the man, and he said something that I, honestly, didn’t really understand or catch. As I wasn’t particularly interested in a conversation, I just sort of smiled and nodded and pulled out my phone to check my Twitter feed, and scooted a little closer to the door.
He continued to talk to me, or rather, at me. I could only catch about every other word as he mumbled so terribly that he was literally unintelligible at points. I caught enough to hear that he was headed to Kanakee that night – a suburb near where my friend goes to college. At this point, I’d sort of given up on nonverbal cues that he clearly wasn’t picking up on, and so I mentioned the two things I know about Kanakee – that Olivet Nazarene is near there, and that Kanakee is a bad town. And that, literally, is all I said to him.
I was treated to a (kind of racist, to be honest) ramble about how Kanakee has been going downhill and is turning into an unsafe area, along with some cryptic warnings about how I need to worry as a woman alone. Gee, thanks.
I stopped making eye contact with him, turned my body away, and watched the train employee ready the stairs so we could get off the train. We were let off at the end of the platform, and had the entire platform to walk down.
I was the first person off the train, but it wasn’t long before the man matched pace with me and walked with me all the way to the parking lot. I was clutching my keys in my hand within the pocket of my coat, and when we reached the door of the station (leading to the parking lot), I wished him a good evening, and hung back a little in the lighted entrance (this parking lot is not well-lit).
I found myself breathing a sigh of relief when he went straight to his ride and did not continue to try to talk to me and hang back with me.
I’ll be honest: Even though the man probably had decent intentions, even though he might be a genuinely kind and friendly guy, I was scared.
And here’s why: He ignored my boundaries. He took me briefly making eye contact with him and offering a polite but non-committal reply as an offer to keep talking. He ignored boundaries that I thought were pretty clear (me playing with my phone, me looking away and even walking away) in order that I would listen to him. And by subtly signaling to me that he would ignore my boundaries in something as simple as a conversation on public transit, I knew I couldn’t trust him to respect my boundaries in any other situation. And when that happens in the dark in a bad neighborhood when I’m alone, I get scared.
In other words: by ignoring my boundaries once, he immediately put himself in a position where I would not and could not trust him. And that made me feel threatened, especially as a single woman going home alone.
Were a woman to do this to a man, the situation would not be received in the same way. I’m just going to make that clear now: Women live in a culture in which we are instructed every day of our lives that 1. Our bodies are not our own and men are free to judge them as they see fit, 2. We must do everything we can to protect ourselves, because if we do get attacked, we will be questioned on what we could have done differently, and 3. That saying no directly may give the complete stranger you’re talking to reason to escalate conflict, and that puts you in a double bind, so it’s best to just deflect and ignore.
I’m going back up to the city on Saturday night. And I just googled where I can find pepper spray near me. I’ve never felt the need to carry pepper spray before, but my encounter last Saturday was enough to convince me to buy some to take with me into the city.
It was, overall, a relatively tame encounter, but it was enough to remind me, someday, there might be a man who doesn’t have a ride waiting for him, a man who wants to follow me to my car, or a man who is more overtly threatening.
So, guys, this one’s for you:
See that cute girl on the bus or the train? You want to talk to her, right? You may even have legitimate reason to – you’re familiar with the book she’s reading, you think her shoes are cute, whatever. And you think, "I have to take this chance – if I don’t say something, I could miss out on an awesome relationship! Maybe, just maybe, she’s the best friend and wife I’ve been waiting for. I should say something, right? She is reading that book, and she seems pretty engrossed in it. And her headphones are in. But, dude, she could be my wife!"
But here’s the deal: Your internal monologue and hers are very different. While you're thinking about "nothing ventured nothing gained," she's wondering: “Is this guy a creep? Should I be afraid? He’s talking to me when I don’t want to talk to him. How can I tell him no without possibly setting him off? Is he going to get mad if I tell him ‘no’ directly? If I do tell him no, is he going to leer at me for the rest of the bus ride and follow me to my car or down the street? Why won’t he just let me read my book and play Words with Friends in peace? If I don’t shake this guy, what are my options?”
If the woman you think is attractive is clearly engrossed in something else – whether it be her book, her music, or her phone, and is not holding a posture that says “COME TALK TO ME!” – then don’t talk to her. Don’t be “that guy” who makes her feel unsafe for the rest of her ride home. Don’t be that guy who makes her reach for her keys the instant she gets off the train in case she has to defend herself. Don’t be that guy who makes her wonder if she should break into a run and whether her shoes would slip on the ice.
For you, it’s an innocent little conversation with a stranger. For her, more often than not, it’s the incident that convinces her to finally buy some pepper spray.