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Sometimes a Girl Just Wants to Get Her Work Done

December 6, 2011

Mind this off-topic post. I apologize, there is no science or journalism here. Instead, this is a response to AV Flox‘s wonderful story, “I Just Want to Go on a Walk.” 

A female friend of mine, after reading the story, asked me

“Hey Colin, what was your response to this piece? I have a guy friend who isn’t responding well and I’m trying to explain it to him, but it might be helpful to have a male perspective.”

The only response I could come up with was to recount a story; a scene I’d seen play out in a coffee shop where I often spend my afternoons writing.

Credit: David Goehring

A few weeks ago, I watched an attractive university student get subtly harassed for over half an hour. Though, the man who was trying to catch her attention wasn’t actually doing anything wrong–per se.

The middle-aged man spoke briefly to the student while he was in line to get coffee and she was working on her laptop at a table near the counter. When he’d been served, she went back to work, and he went to sit down… at the table right next to her. What’s more, he had bought her a coffee. She awkwardly accepted it, went back to work, and he busied himself looking out the window.

The awkward silence lasted for about five minutes.

At this point, apparently annoyed his coffee hadn’t grabbed her attention, he started talking to her. Eyes locked on her computer, you could see her short, one-word answers from across the café. He backed down, only to try again five minutes later. Then again five minutes after that, again and again trying to strike up conversation. What he was doing wasn’t wrong per se. However, he did seem completely oblivious to how uncomfortable he was making her.

Throughout the ordeal, the student kept throwing glances around the shop, trying to catch the eyes of the other patrons. I know I, and a couple other people, gave her reassuring smiles, letting her know we were there if she needed us.

After around half an hour of this terse back-and-forth, seemingly frustrated his gentle advances weren’t working, the man leaned in, inches from her ear, and whispered. I have no idea what he said, but the shocked look on her face, and her silently mouthing, “What the fuck?” was a strong enough clue.

Regaining her composure, she looked at him and said nothing. A few minutes later, she packed her bags and left. A few minutes after that, he walked out the door. The entire coffee shop burst into activity: checking he hadn’t walked the same way as her, and analyzing how awkward the scene that had just played out had been.

Everyone in the café had been watching, everyone knew it was wrong, but no one had done anything. Why? Because the man’s actions weren’t wrong, per se. All he did was buy a cute young girl a coffee, and try to strike up a conversation.

But his actions were wrong. They were unwanted, they were unwarranted, and they were unacceptable. His pleasant-enough approach had disrupted her, made her visibly uncomfortable, and forced her to leave a place where, before his arrival, she had been working happily for over an hour.

I spend hours every day writing on my laptop in coffee shops. I’ve talked to strangers at coffee shops, I’ve made friends at coffee shops, I’ve asked girls out at coffee shops. Never once have I been forced to leave a coffee shop.

So if you don’t understand how the polite advances of a stranger, someone who seemingly only wants to talk, whether in a café or on the street, could be considered harassment, ask yourself: when was the last time you were forced to leave a place because someone made staying unbearable?

Sometimes you just want to get your work done.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2011 9:18 pm

    Bravo, Colin! This post is absolutely spot on.

  2. December 6, 2011 9:31 pm

    Nicely put Colin … I felt as though I was there … I have witnessed interactions such as these and they played out in pretty much the same way … especially the shop-wide call-to-arms as the bloke in question left :-)

  3. Bodhi permalink
    December 6, 2011 10:27 pm

    I disagree: I think his actions were wrong per se, because he was oblivious to, or more likely was choosing to ignore, the signs that she wanted to get on with her work and wasn’t interested in him. That’s selfish and unempathetic behavior, and it’s not surprising that the woman was alarmed. She could have been more direct in her communication, though, by telling the guy that she appreciated the coffee but needed to get some work done, and would he mind leaving her alone. She wasn’t helping herself.

    • December 6, 2011 10:48 pm

      The actions, of talking, sitting, and buying a coffee, are not inherently wrong. Especially when contrast against other forms of what people normally think of as sexual harassment.
      My point in recounting this story was to show that innocuous actions can become harassment when the context is wrong. Guys need to be aware of the consequences of *all* of their actions.

      She could have been more aggressive, true, but he could have been more alert. Exchanges between two people depend on the appropriate behaviour of both parties. It is not the girl’s, or the guy’s, job to control the situation.

      That being said, my repeated use of the phrase, “not wrong, per se,” was to set up a rhetorical bait and switch. Repeating that sentence and building it up allowed me to knock it down in the final paragraphs, and was not intended to excuse anyone from the consequences of their actions by giving them a philosophical shield.

  4. fioralainn permalink
    December 6, 2011 10:36 pm

    Yes, that is exactly it. And I’m really tired of people telling me the burden is on me to bluntly tell men know that I’m not interested when men have the same responsibility to pay attention to social cues that I do.

    • Anonymous permalink
      December 7, 2011 12:39 am

      There is nothing wrong with HAVING to tell someone to leave you alone. Many people can be clueless to signs of when someone is or isn’t interested. By accepting the coffee AND not being blunt, she gave hope. You give the guy a chane to clue in but sooner than later you stand up for yourself. I wouldn’t have left if I was her. She got there first. You nicely tell them you need to concentrate, lie about a boyfriend, flat out be rude or even complain to staff. There have been a few times I had to flat out tell someone to eff off – and it felt quite empowering to stand up for myself in such a way when the moment called for that level of

      • December 7, 2011 9:47 am

        Because maybe she didn’t realize he was going to turn out to be a total creeper when he first gave her the coffee? Look, obviously there’s some ideal balance to be found somewhere, where women in this situation are just as assertive as they need to be and men are perceptive enough to take hints. But I don’t think that means we should have to be preemptively cold to everyone on the off chance they turn out to be obnoxious, and I don’t think failing to refuse what could have been just a single friendly gesture was “giving hope” and therefore made it her fault.

      • The Ys permalink
        December 7, 2011 10:08 pm

        Nice job of putting all responsibility for the interaction back onto the woman’s shoulders. Men can just wander through life claiming to be clueless instead of accepting responsibility for their own actions! Boys will be boys! /sarcasm

        Yes, it’s great to be assertive. It’s not so great to be assertive when you have no freakin’ clue if the guy will escalate…and if he’s that much of a creeper, the odds are higher that he will scream, rage, or get physical. It’s happened to me, and it’s happened to many, many other women. So we’d appreciate it if you’d stop telling us what to do when you weren’t in the situations we’ve been in and had to deal with men who got violent when we said “No” or “Please leave me alone”.

        So yeah – that’s great advice. Really.

  5. Steve permalink
    December 6, 2011 11:09 pm

    Good story and very true.

  6. TKK permalink
    December 7, 2011 12:02 am

    Worse, refuse the offer of the drink (already purchased) and become “that bitch” and still have to deal with someone who now thinks you DESERVE to be followed back to the bus stop, parking spot, workplace…

  7. Robby permalink
    December 7, 2011 12:06 am

    He was wrong, but since he wasn’t rebuffed, he continued. She needed a strong putdown line and Not accept the coffee or anything no matter how small !!!

    I wouldn’t mind meeting a new friend under such circumstances, but no means no. Lying about meeting a boyfriend would acceptable. Someone could have posed as a “boyfriend” and rescued her.

    • The Ys permalink
      December 7, 2011 10:10 pm

      Why should she have to lie? Why can’t the guy just leave her alone?

  8. December 7, 2011 1:33 am

    Great post, Collin. I have to say, though, no one talks about how others should have acted. Sure, it would have been best if the guy had easily taken the hint. Sure, she could have been blunt or rude. However, I propose something different. Why did no one else say anything? If everyone was aware, someone could have intervened; politely, bluntly or rudely. Was there a significant space between her departure and his? Did anyone follow him after he followed her? We talk about how individuals act: he did, she did, I would, she should, but if you see something that is clearly not right you should act. TKK made a good point above, this guy probably wouldn’t get the right hint from the woman, but he might if he becomes aware that others are watching him.

  9. December 7, 2011 4:41 am

    Actually I think there is a bit of nuance missing here. I actually don’t think that chatting her up or buying her a coffee were bad. I find it a bit strange that because someone feels awkward, suddenly it’s harassment. Surely the truth is that in most encounters with strangers, we both feel a bit awkward? Approaching someone or responding can take courage for both genders. But it can also be thrilling, a conversation with a stranger. Maybe a bit out of the comfort zone, but interesting. It would be sad not to be open to such encounters with other human beings.

    But personally, if I wasn’t up for a conversation with someone, I would say that I am focusing on my work, so would they mind letting me work in peace. I feel politeness and charm has gotten me out of most of these kinds of situations. Though it helps not to accept anything from the person in question if you don’t want to engage with them.

    When things started to get our of hand was when he was abusive towards her (we can imagine what he said only too well). That’s the delineation – when things became really inappropriate and unacceptable. And that’s a whole different kettle of fish. The question, and discussion then becomes about the verbal abuse, rather than the fact he made advances on her. Why did he think he could say those things to her?

    But also: What if, in a hypothetical coffee shop, she had reacted differently? What if she had asked for the manager and got the staff to remove the man from the premises? Or what if she had simply fended off his advances sooner? (I would like to think I would stand up and repeat loudly the comment he had made and ask him to leave right away – but maybe that’s in my imagination.) I am not saying this to put all the onus on the woman – after all he should have treated her respectfully regardless of his desire for her. But I am just wondering whether the guy would learn not to be a sleazeball if there had been repercussions for his inappropriate actions.

    • December 7, 2011 8:19 am

      I feel like this is missing the major consequence of acting as you are describing. Women have been socially conditioned to want to please others and avoid hurting feelings. We are in fact quite harshly punished if we do it. So, as an earlier commenter noted, had she been more forceful (though I think her largely ignoring him already indicated she wasn’t interested) she could have gotten yelled at. If you read AV Flox’s piece, the one Colin is referring to, you’ll see her point this out in the interaction that frames her whole story. Ignore someone, firmly tell them you aren’t interested, and you risk being called a bitch. Or worse, there is an escalation and you risk violence.

      Thanks for writing this Colin. And this does seem like an opportunity to think through how members of the community can better support women when we observe this happening. I wonder if approaching the woman and saying, “Oh hi! Would you like that seat over there? It’s a little better than this one” to get her away from him would work. Or to the man, “Hey, I can’t help but notice that she doesn’t feel like talking to you today.” The question is, what is the most likely to resolve things without escalation or a scene?

      The problem is, as Colin and others have pointed out, most of the responsibility is on the guy to actually understand context. Because even a stranger’s best of intentions can backfire if they try to intervene (I still think they should because it makes it clear to the woman she has support).

      • December 7, 2011 8:55 am

        I tire of hearing someone say “but I could have been called a bitch!” as an excuse for why they don’t stick up for themselves. Yes, women are conditioned to be non-confrontational, and it’s hard to get around that. But I personally see it as a pretty shitty option to make yourself feel uncomfortable instead of taking charge of the situation and putting someone down.

        Until you make it perfectly clear that you don’t want this person’s attention, they have any excuse in the book (in their head) to keep badgering you. Why give them that option? Make it clear, make it obvious. I would even say that you shouldn’t toss out a boyfriend or partner to get someone to go away — you shouldn’t have to lie to get someone to respect your privacy. Stand up and make them respect your wishes. If they’re not getting the hints, then it’s time for a more direct approach.

        Women will never be empowered if we keep shifting all the blame and responsibility onto the man in that situation. He’s not perfect, and we shouldn’t expect any person to be. Yet there is a growing tendency to expect men to be perfect while not expecting women to stand up for their own peace of mind.

        This woman is not helped by being framed as a victim here. She is only helped if we can help her (and help each other) learn to take power in situations. If that makes her a bitch, well, she needs to decide what’s more important: being secure in her mind, body, and surroundings, or the opinion of some asshole she doesn’t even know.

      • The Ys permalink
        December 7, 2011 10:26 pm

        “Yet there is a growing tendency to expect men to be perfect while not expecting women to stand up for their own peace of mind.”

        No – there is a growing tendency to expect men (not all men) to stop acting like privileged jerks.

        There’s also a growing tendency to acknowledge that men aren’t helpless infants when it comes to reading body language and polite rebuffs.

    • December 7, 2011 10:29 am

      Having been in this situation myself, I can say that while I TALK about how I would say I’m not interested, no thanks, and not worry about being called a bitch…that is not what I did. When I was on the spot, I was confused, felt VERY pressured to talk to the guy, I didn’t know what to do, and I defaulted to being the nice girl that I was supposed to be. When I told the person who was being pushy that I was NOT interested and that I didn’t appreciate the inappropriate remarks (and I did), he increased his distance, but winked at me and leered until I finally gave up and left. And I didn’t even accept a coffee. Politeness and charm didn’t help me here.

      I know I SHOULD have “stood up and made them respect my wishes” but in the moment, in the reality, I was nervous, uncomfortable, and was only thinking about how to get out of the situation, not about who was respecting me. And I don’t really think it’s fair to criticize people who do not behave in the way you like to think you would. This particular guy picked on MANY of the women present, and while we all made it clear we weren’t interested and were creeped out, we none of us “stood up” to him. Are you sure you’d do the same in the same instance? If you really would, good for you. But do not blame those who can’t. They still didn’t deserve to be the target of an uncomfortable experience like this. I think it’s really true that we can only be helped when we are really trained from a very young age to take charge of these situations.

  10. Eva permalink
    December 7, 2011 7:16 am

    It sounds like he was one of those guys that assume that a girl sitting by herself in a coffee shop is there because she wants attention. The concept of working in coffee shops doesn’t seem to come across to some people. Not blaming them for socializing – it is a meeting place even more than it is an office – but if you buy coffee often enough you’d THINK you would have noticed that some people use the place to work…

    So I agree with Christine: she could have said she was working/busy, but nothing was really wrong until the moment where he whispered something in her ear.

  11. 2261 permalink
    December 7, 2011 9:23 am

    If you think his actions were wrong or unacceptable (which I believe were as described) why didn’t you say anything? You speak a lot about social queues and social responsibilities, yet you never mentioned stepping in to help this poor girl.

    Just a simple “Are you okay?” to the girl would suffice. The guy would more than likely back off, especially coming from a another male.

    This article is nothing more than a means for you clear your mind by telling your readers what your subconscious wanted you to tell this man. Speak up next time.

    • December 7, 2011 10:00 am

      As Christine (I think correctly) mentioned above, the line from creepy or annoying to inappropriate was crossed when he broke her personal space and whispered in her ear. That was also the point at which she’d had enough and left. I think there is a fine line to play between acting, and passively providing support. I say in the story I smiled at her, but there had been a number of exchanged glances and bouts of silent laughter shared between us. She knew we were watching. She knew we were there if he got really bad.

      It’s a subtle point, I think, but constantly interrupting situations because I as an outsider (or I as a male) deem it so is removing the girl’s agency to act, in the same way, but to a different magnitude, as the guy ignoring her display of discomfort. I think that letting her know we support her when it is a discomfort, and being there directly if it escalates, is the appropriate path to follow.

  12. December 7, 2011 11:00 am

    Comments which downplay, explain, or give benefit of doubt to the male instigator in response to your piece, and @avflox’s, and elevatorgate, etc etc, aren’t just not helpful, they’re part of the problem.

    Yeah, the dude could be aspergers. He could just be a sweet-intentioned boob. His pet turtle might have just run away & he only wants some commiseration. Etc. Etc. Etc.

    But what most men are completely in denial about is absolute day-in day-out pervasive prevalence of a spectrum of uninvited breaches into women’s personal space. From a smile while waiting to cross the street to assault and rape, with everything in between.

    It happens all the time. Every day. Everywhere. In the park, the elevator, the coffee shop.

    Every day women need to make a split-second assessment: is this guy a threat? Because the reality is that a non-trivial fraction of dudes who approach unknown women are.

    In a ubiquitous culture of threat & harassment no one has the right to demand the benefit of the doubt. The instigator is crossing the personal space boundary. The person whose space is breached is entitled to respond however they want. But the problem is that they are forced to respond in the first place.

    • permalink
      December 7, 2011 10:47 pm

      “a smile while waiting to cross the street” is part of the “spectrum of uninvited breaches into women’s personal space”?
      And here I thought that was just being a human being.

      Look maybe you live in a “culture of threat & harassment” (where are you, South Africa?) but not most of us. You sound like one of those full of herself broads who thinks she’s irresistible to everything on two legs. That smile, most often, is just a smile.

      Obviously women need to protect themselves from the real jerks out there. No argument there. But seeing *everyone* as a threat? “every day. Everywhere. In the park, the elevator, the coffee shop.” Sure every human being has to make assessments but you sound really, REALLY afraid. How do you come outside? I feel bad for you. What a life you don’t live.

      • Betsy permalink
        December 9, 2011 1:01 am

        Sometimes what it takes to understand this is to be a young women taking public transportation constantly. Most people are friendly. But men who are twice your age will go out of their way to come over and talk to you in a way they clearly are not doing to anyone else. This happened to me on the light-rail yesterday and I just stared at my laptop and didn’t react other than giving one or two word answers because I knew – from experience taking the bus – that if I engaged him in a friendly way he would take it as an invitation to get even more personal, and once you’ve said a certain amount of friendly things to someone it’s difficult to disentangle yourself politely, especially from the kinds of people who talk to random young girls on trains. You know they are not just talking to you because they wanted a friendly chat with a random someone – you can tell by the contrast in their behavior towards you with their behavior to everyone else, and the discrepancy in age – but they have not done anything overtly wrong or threatening. Yet.

        In the context of one or two of these experiences, a man who is clearly not in your dating bracket, whatever that may be, smiles expectantly at you as you wait to cross the street together, and that becomes the signal that he is getting ready to make a demand on your attention and you know you’re going to have to politely defuse the situation without making a scene, and you have this terribly disheartened feeling of “I just want to walk!” You don’t want any friendliness to be misinterpreted as a reason to follow you down the street asking you questions, so you look away, you take out your phone, you pretend to read a sign, whatever.

        However, if most of your time is spent driving places rather than biking, walking, taking the train, or taking the bus, you might not be familiar with this particular low-grade stranger threat/annoyance, and are probably much more ready to take a smile waiting for the light to change as just a smile. Or, of course, if you’re male, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about.

  13. HeatherR permalink
    December 8, 2011 1:33 am

    Colin – thank you for sharing this story and conversation. I think it is interesting how many different opinions and points of view have arisen from your piece. I happen to agree with Scicurious – I see a lot of woulda coulda shouldas in the responses. While all of them are valid and interesting, I think the most important point is not to pass judgement. It is easy to think that we know how to respond in situations like this, however the body and the mind are powerful things that sometimes we cannot control – even though we own them. I also think that what Christine said is very true – it’s important to note the transition of the behaviour from annoying to inapproporiate – that is where the situation turned dangerous.

    I also don’t believe that this story should turn into a gender bash (and this is not meant as to belittle the situation at all). Although the statistics of violence against women are frightening and real, and there are risks wherever you go, this situation can easily be flipped into a woman trying to get the attention of a man, despite his disinterest. This also happens all the time, and can also develop into a dangerous and inappropriate situation – we just don’t hear about it as often.

    Rather, I view this story as a general social lesson – when is it appropriate to approach a stranger and strike up conversation? That is the real question here. The ability to recognize disinterest and unresponsiveness from another person (and subsequently leave them alone) is a trait (ideally) that both men and women should posess and act on; making inappropriate comments and displaying abusive behaviour is something that nobody should ever do.


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