street harassment

Guest Post! Stranger on the train

So I’m standing in the subway yesterday, listening to music, reading a friend’s blog post about moral relativism. I’m engrossed because it’s an interesting topic, and I like to hear his opinions, and I’m weaving threads of thought together in my head and making note of things I want to comment on, whether on the blog or when we go out for beers next time. The subway goes over the Bloor bridge, the one place that gets reception, and I quickly hit the comments link to see what other people have written and how it fits into what I’m thinking.

I’m watching the little loading circle, hoping the page will load before we go into the tunnel again, trying to remember whether moral relativism refers only to temporally disparate cultures or if it’s applicable cross-culturally in the same time period, when I notice the guy next to me trying to get my attention.

I pull one of my earbuds out. “Sorry?”

He mumbles something again, but my music is too loud in the other ear and I can’t make out a single word he’s saying. I pull out the other earbud, apologize again, and ask him to repeat himself.

“how are you today,” he says.


I see. You want to make conversation. Not even about anything specific or interesting; you just want words to come out of our mouths and be directed toward each other. I immediately fill with righteous rage; I was having such interesting thoughts, I was listening to good music, and he pulled me out of my rich internal world for… what? So he can ask me uninteresting questions?

The rage washes over me quickly, and I know to ignore it until it passes. I had a similar encounter with someone a few weeks ago and I regretted how I dealt with it, and decided that I would handle it differently next time. The time a few weeks ago, I was sitting on a bench, listening to music, reading a book, when the guy sitting next to me asked me for the time and immediately followed it with “where are you from?” and after a few more questions asked for my phone number. I had acted curt and cold toward him, and while I don’t think that was wrong of me at all (if someone’s listening to music and reading a book, it’s a pretty clear sign that they don’t want to be interacting with the outside world at the moment, and you should probably leave them alone unless you have a good reason to pull them out. And a good reason is not “I want to talk to them.”) I still think there was probably a more effective way to talk to him (or rather, to get him to stop talking to me, and to not do the same to other women in the future) and I would like to find that way.

So anyway, back to the subway. I’m reminding myself of the guy from a few weeks ago, and that I wanted to handle it differently, and that this is an opportunity to do so with this new guy. Is my rage helpful at the moment? Maybe, if I can think of exactly the right thing to say, and exactly the right intonation to say it with, to make it clear to him that there are certain social cues which indicate that a person doesn’t want to be bothered, and that I was exhibiting several of those, and that I am uninterested in speaking with someone whose first order of business is to disregard and disrespect the reasonably clear cues I was presenting. Can I think of the exact right thing to say and the exact right way to say it in this moment? Not really. So, can I use this rage for something useful? Probably not. I could display it anyway, and hope that his reaction is “gosh, I should probably not bother someone who is so clearly doing something else,” but the more likely reaction would be “what a bitch. I can’t catch a break.” I’m making a lot of assumptions about him, but I’m okay with those assumptions.

Is my rage about him, anyway? Well, kind of. He did something which I fucking hate strangers doing. I have every right to be annoyed. But if he were the only person to ever do that to me, I probably wouldn’t be anything more than annoyed. My visceral reaction to his disrespect isn’t really about him, but about all the times this has happened before. Would it even make sense to vent that rage at him, when he is simply the latest in a string of similar experiences I’ve had all my life? Is it him that I’m angry at, or the biker dude who hit on me when I went to the store for cookies when I was 14? Or the man who rubbed my thigh on the bus when I was 16? Or the man who sexually abused me when I was 6?

The rage isn’t really about this guy after all. It’s about me and the experiences I’ve had and the way that this is supposed to just be an expected and normal part of life. This guy’s sin is that he disregarded my social cues because they were inconvenient for him. A shitty thing to do, but I can’t ask him to answer for the sins of all the predatory men I’ve encountered before him.

These thoughts pass through my head in less than a second, and the rage washes over me and gets replaced by idle amusement. I don’t know how to properly get across what I want to get across to him, but I can at least collect data for the next time this happens.

So I tell him how I am today. No, I’m not coming home from work, I’m going to a friend’s place. I work in software. Yes, I’m pretty good at it. No, I haven’t seen any good movies lately. No, I don’t watch sports. No, I didn’t grow up in Canada. I came here when I was nine. No, I would not like to see you again. Have a good day.

It’d be great if I could say that I now know exactly what to say to simultaneously get someone to stop talking to me and get them to understand why. It’s not the “getting them to stop” that’s a problem. I have absolutely no issue with telling a stranger to leave me alone. I’ve done it several times in the past, to great success (it seems people are thrown off when someone blatantly tells them “please leave now,” so they end up doing so). It’s the fact that getting him out of my hair does nothing for the bigger issue. It just pushes him off to be someone else’s problem. I have very little interest in doing that.

I wonder what his thought process was. He clearly knew the right questions to ask to get to know someone better – he was just missing the vital first ingredient, that the person you’re talking to has to want to talk to you as well, and that this is as much about their own current internal state as it is about making yourself seem like someone worth talking to. Did he read books about how to talk to girls? Get shitty advice from his friends? Does he have social anxiety and doesn’t understand how to properly relate to people? Is he lonely? Why me, as opposed to someone else on the train? Was it just my turn, or was there something specific about me that made him want to talk to me? I need to get some sort of handle on the answers to those questions before I can know how to get through to him. I need to find some way to piece together the similarities between the men (I would say “people”, but it’s really just been men) who have bothered me in this way, without lumping them all together and making the next poor guy pay for everyone else’s sins. And I say “poor guy” without any hint of sarcasm. I can’t imagine that anyone who is that poor at picking up social cues can live a happy and fulfilling life. That guy certainly didn’t seem happy or fulfilled. Is it directly his fault, or is he a product of shitty life lessons? It’s not really him I’m mad at; it’s the fact that he’s a product of our culture.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the most effective ways to communicate with people. I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I’ve spent my whole life thinking about it, but that sounds pretentious. But I’m fascinated by people’s thought processes, and by figuring out how to wedge new ideas into their thought processes. As far as I can tell, the only way to do that is to truly try to understand the way that person’s mind works. You can throw facts at someone all day long and get nowhere if you haven’t figured out how to actually get those facts to stick with them. If I actually care about getting through to people, then I need to do it on their own terms, not my own.

I’m not particularly keen on interacting with someone like him again. But it’s going to happen, so I ought to at least try to make it into a productive interaction.