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February 5, 2007 7:55 AM   Subscribe

How do you react to eccentric strangers on public transportation?

I'm a young (22), friendly-looking female who just moved from a small town to DC. I've lived in the 'burbs my entire life, done the minimum-wage job thing, and never had a problem talking with most people. I take the bus frequently, and usually I'm alone.

Sometimes someone on the bus (usually middle-aged men who look like they've seen better days) will make a general comment to all those on board, i.e. "Happy New Year, everyone!" Occasionally, someone will try to include me in their conversation, whether or not they'd been conversing previously: "Hey, you'd notice if I got a black eye, right? What're you going to school for--doctor or a lawyer?"

Usually in these circumstances I do what everyone else does (assuming they somehow know more about this than me) and ignore them. In that last example, however, I was alone, the bus was almost empty, and I really couldn't just ignore him. So I was friendly and polite, but didn't encourage the conversation and felt (and probably sounded) kind of uncomfortable.

I don't like ignoring these people. But would ignoring them ultimately be the safer option? Taking the Metro isn't an option (thanks, Georgetown), I don't have a car (and wouldn't use one in DC anyway), and more often than not it's necessary for me to take the bus alone. Any non-DC-specific advice/anecdotes/recommendations welcome, thanks.
posted by landedjentry to Human Relations (80 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Talking to people isn't always so bad. I once got a stack of free CDs off of a man on the D2 bus from Dupont circle to georgetown just because I was friendly and conversed with him about music I liked. Of course if someone is genuinly creepy/odd don't be rude, but don't talk to them. On the very same bus line there was a man playing a flute and lighting fires in the back.
posted by Suparnova at 8:04 AM on February 5, 2007


Have you tried reading a book, listening to a MP3 player, or otherwise be occupied on the bus? That way, if someone tries to talk to you, you can act like you were really into whatever you were doing and they are being rude for interrupting you.
posted by Diskeater at 8:06 AM on February 5, 2007


iPod /walkman? Waving a can of Mace® around? Screaming "DO I KNOW YOU?!" whilst doing a crazy dance and pulling at your hair and eyelashes? (just suggestions; YMMV)
posted by exlotuseater at 8:06 AM on February 5, 2007


I don't have a problem talking to most homeless, but if they are clearly off it I just ignore them. Really, the emotional/psychological issues (many) of these people have are such that your cold shoulder is the least of their problems.

Failing that, Gallaudet shirt?
posted by phrontist at 8:07 AM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


Wear headphones? I'm in Philly and have to take public transit daily. At least with headphones I can pretend I didn't hear the creepies.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 8:10 AM on February 5, 2007


Driving in buses is boring. Talking can be more fun than looking out of the window.
Why is talking not safe?
Are you afraid of losing your virginity because of words?
Are you afraid someone might jump on you and talke your money just because you answer?
Say politely "I am not in a mood for talking" and people will understand.
posted by mitocan at 8:11 AM on February 5, 2007


Be determinedly otherwise engaged. Use a book, MP3, cell phone, or other portable device as a prop to dissuade people from conversation.

When when they insist on talking to you, answer politely but briefly, with an undercurrent of annoyance, and resume your previous activity. If they persist, make it clear to them that you are otherwise engaged.

If you do this correctly, you can safely avoid any substantial conversation with ugly old men.
posted by The Confessor at 8:13 AM on February 5, 2007


Seconding headphones - even if you don't have an mp3 player or whatever, just having them on can discourage talkers. Just "plug" them into your pocket; no one has to know the difference.
posted by cgg at 8:14 AM on February 5, 2007


So I was friendly and polite, but didn't encourage the conversation and felt (and probably sounded) kind of uncomfortable.

That's pretty much the default mode for most people, I think. Trapped in conversation with initiating stranger in an enclosed space is a dicey social dynamic.

Most of the people who try to start conversations with me on the bus seem to just really want to talk. They're bored. It's usually not great conversation—they also tend to not really feel like listening, they just want to jaw for a while—but it's not really a burden. And sometimes you get someone with something interesting to tell.

If you're getting creep or anger vibes off someone, feel free to ignore. Sit near the driver (bus) or call box (train) if you're worried about crazies.

If you want to avoid the general situation, put on some headphones. (Burying your nose in a book can help, but it's not bulletproof, viz: "Whatchya readin'?")
posted by cortex at 8:18 AM on February 5, 2007


First of all, there are two types of participatory Metro experiences: 1) the aggressive and/or crazy people, and 2) the excessively friendly but well-meaning types).

1. Aggressive/crazy = ignore unless they escalate, then notify the driver/conductor and remove yourself from the situation.

2. Excessively friendly but well meaning = politely smile, give shortest reply possible, then return to your music listening or book reading (assuming you don't want to converse).

On preview, what others have said. Headphones will stop 99% of this stuff, for real. You don't actually need an iPod, either -- just wear a pair of headphones and keep the plug in your pocket/bag. If someone cares enough to get your attention, they're probably either aggressive/crazy, trying to ask you for directions, or telling you that your shoelace is untied.
posted by somanyamys at 8:21 AM on February 5, 2007


I'm 21, female, tiny-villager-moved-to-london and i completely sympathise! I take public transport everywhere and every so often someone talks to me. Back home this wouldn't be strange (mainly because everyone knows each other) but in the city it seems that people avoid strangers as much as possible. I don't always mind - it depends on the situation/person... last week for instance a little old black lady started telling me about her church. It was completely random and she was a bit odd but we chatted for a couple of minutes until she got off the bus. Little old ladies are pretty non-threatening though.

A couple of months ago i was on the bus, again by myself, and a middle-aged, large man sat next to me and asked me if i was Italian. What? No i'm not. "You look Italian". I had a, what the hell do i say? moment. Then he asked me where i was going. The thing is, you obviously don't want to talk to them/tell them anything personal, but when someone asks you a direct question, it's incredibly hard to ignore them without feeling guilty/impolite/uncomfortable. But you have to. Because quite frankly, men old enough to be your father have no business asking you things like that in the first place. I ignored him, and he went and sat somewhere behind me, started singing/spitting on the floor. I got off the bus, because i was pretty much the only other person on there and i was uncomfortable.

It really pisses me off when strangers give me unwelcome attention, and i always think, it should be fine to just say "can you please not talk to me" or something, but i really don't have the guts. I'd like to think that if other people saw a young woman being harrassed on a bus/tube they'd intervene, but in reality i don't know how likely that is.

If anyone has a good way to deal with unwelcome attention, i'd like to hear it too.
posted by cardamine at 8:22 AM on February 5, 2007


mitocan: "Why is talking not safe?
Are you afraid of losing your virginity because of words?
Are you afraid someone might jump on you and talke your money just because you answer?
Say politely "I am not in a mood for talking" and people will understand.
"

Guess you've never been female, alone, and followed home by a guy who struck up conversation with you on the subway.

And clearly you've never been female, alone, and had a guy so completely apeshit screaming at you that you're a fucking cunt because you politely declined his advances.

Ask ten of your female acquaintances if they've ever had a scary experience just walking down the street or taking the bus. Maybe you'd be surprised how many of them have. I can honestly tell you I know not one woman who hasn't been upset by creeps on occasion when just trying to get around on her own.
posted by loiseau at 8:24 AM on February 5, 2007 [36 favorites]


I'm with mitocan on this one.

What's the big deal with talking for a few minutes to some random people on a bus?

If it makes you feel uncomfortable, then you should say that you aren't in the mood for talking, or should provide yourself with a distraction that removes you from any potential conversation (iPod, book, magazine, etc).

But really though, responding to the types of friendly and engaging comments you've described above (and there really was nothing sinister about any of them) with a simple smile and a few words won't hurt anyone, least of all you. There really is no danger in having a short conversation on the bus.

Just be terse and polite, and people will usually get the hint. If they don't, it's always at your discretion to courteously remove yourself from the conversation or take up another seat in the bus.

"What are you going to school for--doctor or lawyer?"

"Actually, neither, but thanks for asking," and look back down at your book/magazine/headphones.

"No really, so what are you studying?"

"I'm sorry I'm really engrossed in this book right now and don't feel like talking, if you don't mind."

Stretch that conversation out as long as you feel comfortable with and feel free to exit anytime--but really, talking isn't such a bad thing.
posted by dead_ at 8:25 AM on February 5, 2007


Oh, and to address the question at hand: I've been known to move up to sit by the driver if someone really gives me the creeps. Most people are harmless though. I think you just have to follow what your gut tells you.
posted by loiseau at 8:25 AM on February 5, 2007


but headphones = yes. you're deaf to others.
posted by cardamine at 8:25 AM on February 5, 2007


I know this may sound crazy but hear me out... where I come from, if somebody starts talking to you on a bus or a train, we usually talk back to them, rather than pretending you didn't hear them or spraying them with mace.


Try it.
posted by ReiToei at 8:26 AM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


Pay attention to your instincts. I've had some interesting conversations with strangers on public transport, but when in doubt, don't engage. And don't assume that headphones/a book/sunglasses will prevent someone from talking to you if they're really determined (or crazy). I was sitting in Dupont Circle one day - with headphones one, sunglasses, reading a book - when a guy walked up and started to talk to me. I ignored him; he got mad and starting shouting about why was I ignoring him, etc. I took one earbud out, looked at him over the top of my shades, and said, "My mother told me never to talk to strangers." I went back to my book, and he went away.
posted by rtha at 8:27 AM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


In fact, completely ignoring somebody who has probably made an innocent effort to engage you in casual conversation, makes YOU look like the crazy person, IMHO.
posted by ReiToei at 8:29 AM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


Nthing the headphones suggestion. This is (after the fact that I actually enjoy what I'm listening to) the major reason I always wear my Ipod on the bus. I'm sure I'm in the minority on this, and I don't want to derail the thread, but I think it's affirmatively rude to talk to other passengers in these situations.

Plus there's the whole creepy lonely-middle-aged-guy/young woman dynamic that, thank God, I don't have to contend with.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:31 AM on February 5, 2007


In fact, completely ignoring somebody who has probably made an innocent effort to engage you in casual conversation, makes YOU look like the crazy person, IMHO.

Or just not feeling social. This is not a black-or-white decision, and not every interaction between strangers on public transportation can be fairly characterized as "an innocent effort to engage you in casual conversation".
posted by cortex at 8:36 AM on February 5, 2007


It's not a question of etiquette--strangers who approach you are already breaching the social contract. They might be harmless eccentrics, or they might be trying to hustle or harass you. Ignore them, or give them a few disinterested nods and grumps, but don't make eye contact. Or keep an eye on how other people on the bus react, and follow their lead.
posted by hydrophonic at 8:39 AM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


"I no speak English."

Seconding the earphones, jacked in or not, and sitting near the driver.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:39 AM on February 5, 2007


Yeah... ummm, when you're a young girl? Strangers aren't always that normal. Seriously. Especially in bigger cities. Sometimes you REALLY have to avoid talking to people or leading them on for your own protection. I learned that lesson the hard way. A simple polite word can lead an unhinged person to believe you are their girlfriend. Most people aren't unhinged, but they are definitely walking around in society. And taking buses.

Use your instincts. Headphones are good, even if you don't have them plugged into anything and just put the cord in your pocket nobody has to know. Then you can pick and choose who you invite conversation with and who you "don't hear." Also, sunglasses are good because you can look around without people knowing... then you never make eye contact with the wrong person.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:40 AM on February 5, 2007


You do not have to talk to everyone who talks to you- you don't owe anyone. You are not required to entertain the world just because you're young and female. Ignore the fucktards in this thread and listen to yourself. I agree with those who say you should wear an iPod/CD player and read something. But even if you aren't, you can ignore anyone who talks to you- it is not against the law and it does not make you a bitch.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:40 AM on February 5, 2007 [20 favorites]


It's not a question of etiquette--strangers who approach you are already breaching the social contract.

Right, because not one of us has ever been the stranger and approached someone for directions or made small talk with a person we didn't know. This is a ridiculous comment. Breach of social contract? It's public transportation. Sometimes people like to say, "Hi, how are ya? What's going on in your life?"

You're free to say, "Nothing, I don't want to talk," but to pretend like someone saying hello to you on a bus is a breach of social contract is ludicrous.
posted by dead_ at 8:43 AM on February 5, 2007 [2 favorites]


"not every interaction between strangers on public transportation can be fairly characterized as "an innocent effort to engage you in casual conversation"

Obviously not, but at the same time, not every person who says hello to you on the bus or on a train wants to rape you or blow up you.
posted by ReiToei at 8:43 AM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


No one has the right to my time. I don't care if they're a harmless old grandmother or a male underwear model. I am not on the bus/the train/in public to entertain other people.

I nth the headphones suggestion, but I've even had people try to talk to me while I wear my headphones and they'll even motion at me to take them off.

Even if they aren't creepy or scary, no one has the right to a woman's attention or time. But people think they do if you're young-looking and female. It's bullshit.
posted by winna at 8:46 AM on February 5, 2007 [8 favorites]


Having been the "crazy guy" on the DC Metro on at least one instance, I am in no way qualified to answer this. (I had one whole half a a train car to myself on a summer day due to a lack of showering, five fingers of whiskey, and some maniacal laughing while reading Fastfood Nation. I scared the tourists.)

I have successfully used headphones to convince talkative old ladies that I am not capable of conversing.

I have also used the insanity plea to keep those weird men off my back. (This even works in other countries.) However, I am a man of girth with facial hair, so I can't suggest this tactic for everyone.

Your best bets are headphones, politeness, studiously ignoring the slightly deranged and avoiding the ones who seem scary. A book to avoid eye contact combined with headphones is the best bet. There is a permanence and weight that books have that reading a newspaper or magazine does not.
posted by Seamus at 8:49 AM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


Obviously not, but at the same time, not every person who says hello to you on the bus or on a train wants to rape you or blow up you.

It completely depends on context. If you're sat next to someone on a long train journey you'll probably end up chatting. If a creepy old man sits next to you on the bus when there are other seats free you're going to be uncomfortable. It's not a case of thinking we'll be "raped" or "blown up", attention like that is simply unwelcome.
posted by cardamine at 8:49 AM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


If a creepy old man sits next to you on the bus when there are other seats free you're going to be uncomfortable. It's not a case of thinking we'll be "raped" or "blown up", attention like that is simply unwelcome.

That I agree with.
posted by ReiToei at 8:51 AM on February 5, 2007


Absolutely right on to everyone I favorited, and winna feels golden as well. There are many men out there that think because you're female and sitting in front of them, that they have a right to talk to you and have you be friendly to them. Bullshit on that. I don't want to be bothered on public transportation, and after I've made that clear, step the fuck off. I don't owe you anything.

Also, there are enough insane people I run into on a daily basis that you can NEVER approach everything with an open heart and be friendly across the board. Caution is important, no matter how much that idea offends some.
posted by agregoli at 8:56 AM on February 5, 2007


I definitely have come across people on public transportation in DC that I think it is safer not to talk with. However, it's a shame that people have to wear headphones and avoid eye contact to avoid the crazies. I've seen people wearing shirts that told me they are from my hometown or went to my college. It would be nice to make small talk with people that I know I have something in common with but often it's not possible. I vote against talking on a cell phone to appear busy because it's so annoying to the person next to you.
posted by hokie409 at 9:00 AM on February 5, 2007


I have never been in danger from someone talking to me on the bus, and I take public transport a lot. So go ahead and talk to anyone you feel like.

If someone you feel is potentially dangerous is persistent — people who are drunk or high can be unpredictable — you can move from the back of the bus to the front and explain to the bus driver that a drunk/high/unstable seeming passenger is harassing you. Bus drivers have their ways of dealing with these things.

Ignoring people is not generally a useful tactic. This lets them know that you are non-confrontational, a victim. If you don’t want to say anything, raise your eyebrows, give them a pointed look, and turn away.

Men know perfectly well that women feel vulnerable when they are alone in public. They know this. So you can assume that any guy who is persistent about making you uncomfortable in public is deliberately taking advantage of your instinct to be polite at all times. And that is very, very impolite. You aren’t under any obligation to be accomodating.

You can say “I’m sorry, we haven’t been introduced.” Or if someone is being persistent, “Go away.” Take your space. Back away. If someone has you blocked in against a window seat, you can ask him to get up. Preferably in a voice loud enough for other passengers to hear clearly.

I found “Fuck off” to be particularly effective. The guys weren’t expecting that. They were expecting a victim and I wasn’t acting like a victim. (Note that I use the past tense. Once I used it a few times and it worked, I clearly looked more confident. I never had to use it again. People stayed out of my personal space. Or maybe I was feeling confident and they were looking for someone confident and if they offered me conversation I took them up on it. Whatever.)

Until I started working near the red light district I assumed I was doing something wrong to be attracting all this unwanted attention. In the residential neighbourhoods I lived in until my early twenties, men would follow me in cars, asking me to get in to direct me to the landmark staring them in the face one block ahead. Pin me against the window in buses, insisting that I was in their math class. Put their arm over my shoulder as I walked along a shopping concourse in the morning. Sit beside me on a bench at a bus shelter asking me questions about my sex life. Follow me down the street and up the stairs to my friends house, telling me to go with them, that my friend wasn’t there. Pretty gross stuff, and I didn’t know how to handle it (until someone told me I could tell them to go away). I felt uncomfortable, sometimes frightened, and somehow ashamed.

When I started working at a job that required me to walk through the red light district at 1:00 in the morning to get to my bus stop, it was completely different. Yes, guys pulled up in their cars to talk to me. “Baby, are you dating?” I’d tell them no, politely... and they’d leave. They weren’t looking for victims. They were looking for a consenting adult able to negociate a business transaction. The men in respectable neighbourhoods stalking teenaged girls were looking for victims, someone who would squirm.

If reading the advice you get here doesn’t help, take a women’s self-defense class. You’ll get to see attitude in action and practice it in class before taking it to the street.

Check out this thread on street harassment:


This is from a comment in that thread, but it could be me, verbatim: “One of my favorite cartoons — I forget where I saw it — came out 20+ years ago. In a crowded subway car a woman holds up the hand of a man who, completely red-faced, tries to disappear. The woman is shouting, “Whose hand is this? I found it on my ass!” Hold them accountable, for sure.”
posted by kika at 9:00 AM on February 5, 2007 [17 favorites]


Being out in public is not blanket consent for every idiot in the world to talk to you.

It's not harassment. It's an annoyance. Just like your silly comment.
posted by winna at 9:02 AM on February 5, 2007 [2 favorites]


I hate absolutists in these discussions. I hate the "you must be a delicate little flower" condescension that drips from all those kinds of replies.

I don't live in daily fear of being mugged or raped or anything like that. But I don't have to like some random person trying to make conversation with me on the bus or train. It does not make me a bitch to refuse to acknowledge them or be friendly - leave me alone.

And you know what? If it makes me a bitch to them, I don't care about that either. Shrug. Them's the breaks when you talk to strangers in enclosed spaces, you don't know what you're gonna get.

Have I had positive conversations and experiences on the train? Of course - that's what's stupid about insisting we're all afraid or big meanies - I'm 100% everyone here who have the same position on this has had positive experiences too.
posted by agregoli at 9:03 AM on February 5, 2007 [2 favorites]


My previous comment was directed at gregb1007, who apparently thinks I'm taking too much on myself to not want to be the directions person for everyone on the street.
posted by winna at 9:05 AM on February 5, 2007


I've never been a young female but I can definitely sympathize with the situation given the numerous horrific accounts that I've heard from female friends and relatives.

You are under no obligation to talk to someone if you don't want to. This supposed "moral obligation" is ridiculous, but manners can go a long way in helping diffuse a potential misunderstanding. Be as polite as possible, but assertive. Have something at hand (iPod, book etc.) that could be deflective. As a last resort, sit near the driver and at the first sign of trouble do not hesitate to seek assistance.

The last thing you need is something bad to happen to you simply because you were guilted into talking to every nice person or halfwit you encounter in public spaces.
posted by purephase at 9:07 AM on February 5, 2007


dead_: Right, because not one of us has ever been the stranger and approached someone for directions or made small talk with a person we didn't know. This is a ridiculous comment. Breach of social contract? It's public transportation. Sometimes people like to say, "Hi, how are ya? What's going on in your life?"

You're free to say, "Nothing, I don't want to talk," but to pretend like someone saying hello to you on a bus is a breach of social contract is ludicrous.


I meant to emphasis to landedjentry, the OP, who put "etiquette" in her tags, that she's not the one being rude. Asking for directions or even spare change is one thing. Usually people asking for help are aware of how they come across and recognize and respect others' personal space. There's polite small talk, but I don't think that's what she's asking about.

"What's going on in your life?" is not small talk, it's intrusive. And I've seen "Hi, how are ya?" escalate to "Come back here, you (racial slur) bitch!" It's rare, but it does happen.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:10 AM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


I agree with everyone who's said that no one is "entitled" to your time. Regardless of their motivation, the guys who are speaking to you are wasting your time if, ultimately, you're not looking to make new bus pals.

And trust me, a male stranger talking to another male stranger (unless he's, like, in a truckstop bathroom) doesn't have the same implication as it does when it's a dude talking to a woman. It doesn't *always*, but it does enough that I'm wary of it, and I don't even project an inviting persona.

I think that a terse reply that isn't open-ended is the best way to respond in situations like these--ignoring them entirely might make them indignant.

If someone seems threatening to you (like he's sitting next to you on an otherwise-empty bus), I recommend saying something like, "It's ok that you're talking to me now, but in about three minutes, it's not going to be ok." It's worked for me on numerous occasions.
posted by veronica sawyer at 9:12 AM on February 5, 2007


The last thing you need is something bad to happen to you simply because you were guilted into talking to every nice person or halfwit you encounter in public spaces.

Before anyone jumps on this, I'd like to point out that most people are not rapists, murderers, or kidnappers. I'm not sure that it's necessarily "dangerous" to one's physical presence to talk to strangers in public places (although it can be). However, a great deal of people are annoying morons, and by refusing to deal with any of them, the OP could be ensuring her safety against the rare weirdo.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:13 AM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


Oh — and I love talking to strangers, by the way. I get to learn lots of things that I would never know otherwise. Sometimes I even approach them, but I’m a woman and I only approach men. I always assume women will find an approach by a stranger creepy, even if it’s another woman. Well, if she’s a dyke I would probably feel ok approaching her.

But I only love talking to strangers when I feel like it. If I don’t feel like it, whether that’s because I’m not in the mood or because I’m getting a bad vibe from the stranger, I don’t. That simple.

I can’t support the MP3 gambit though. It’s too much like saying “my boyfriend is waiting for me” instead of standing up for yourself. Feeling like you could never stand up for yourself and be taken seriously is not fun — and not true, either. Women have just mostly not been taught how to assert themselves in public. But if we could learn to be compliant we can learn to be assertive. It’s not that hard and it’s way more fun than feeling like a victim and trying not to be noticed.
posted by kika at 9:14 AM on February 5, 2007 [3 favorites]


No, you aren't breaking the Geneva Concention of Manners by ignoring someone who attempts to talk to you, but if simply talking to someone is making you uncomfortable, then you will be about a bajillion times more comfortable when you get that one whackjob who not only won't leave you alone, but is insulted by you ignoring him and makes a point of telling you so, loudly and rudely.

Being ignored is so much easier for whackjobs to handle if you have something else that you need to be doing, like reading something or listening to music. Have some of those things on hand.
posted by 23skidoo at 9:15 AM on February 5, 2007


hydrophonic, I understand what you're saying, but I feel like maybe you and some other people are extrapolating this question a little bit based on personal experience. Let's keep in mind what was said, and what we are being asked about here:

"Happy New Year, everyone!"

"Hey, you'd notice if I got a black eye, right? What're you going to school for--doctor or a lawyer?"

These are innocuous statements and they are in no way a "breach" of social contract. Escalating them certainly is, but on their face these statements are no better or worse than asking for change, directions, or whatever. Without more context it's difficult to judge what could happen here.

I absolutely understand that feelings that a woman might have when isolated and put in an uncomfortable, claustrophobic position with a creepy man, which is why my suggestion for action erred on the side of polite detachment and courteous removal--so as to avoid that escalation that could easily come from outright silence, stare-downs or other remarks that the creepster could latch on to and escalate into a confrontation. I don't think those are bad ways to defer someone, but just not necessarily the most appropriate actions to take based on the information provided in the question.
posted by dead_ at 9:17 AM on February 5, 2007


"What's going on in your life?" is not small talk, it's intrusive.

Very true. There's chatting to someone because they're wearing the shirt of a band you like, or you're both dressed up for the halloween party (for example), and then there's completely inapropriate attempts to engage someone in giving out more personal information. It might be alright to do in a bar or club, but on the bus people don't expect to be approached by strangers and far less is socially acceptable.
posted by cardamine at 9:21 AM on February 5, 2007 [2 favorites]


[a few comments removed -- if you can't answer the question without strawman hyperbole or "get a gun" advice, please take it to metatalk or email]
posted by jessamyn at 9:21 AM on February 5, 2007


Based on the question? All of our answers are good advice, in my opinion, so we differ there.
posted by agregoli at 9:22 AM on February 5, 2007


but on the bus people don't expect to be approached by strangers

Pretty much every time I leave my apartment I expect to be approached--and especially when I get on the bus or train.
posted by dead_ at 9:22 AM on February 5, 2007


She's not an entertainment center for the people on the train/bus/[mode of transportation]. It does not make her crazy for not wanting to talk to strangers, but I think it makes a lot of people in this thread look like an ass for implying as much. She asked for advice on how to avoid having to speak to people, not contradictions on how she should feel, and not to worry about being assaulted, raped, or "blown up" by these strangers. It sounds as if she just just wants to commute in peace, and I don't blame her. Sometimes a conversation with a stranger is unwelcome, even when that stranger is non-threatening. But I guess if a young, twenty-something doesn't want to talk to an older middle aged man she probably has nothing in common with it must be because she's threatened by him rather than just uninterested in a conversation with him.

Anyway, a book or headphones can feel almost like armor when you don't want to speak to someone. More than that though, take a look at your body language - turn away from people, arms crossed over your chest. Physically you'll read as someone who doesn't want to be bothered. I hope it helps you, and good luck.
posted by sephira at 9:25 AM on February 5, 2007


Pretty much every time I leave my apartment I expect to be approached--and especially when I get on the bus or train

Maybe you're just a more friendly, open person. I...am not.
posted by cardamine at 9:26 AM on February 5, 2007


Miss Manners was asked once what the correct response is for a young lady who was approached in public. I believe her response was that one could either ignore the unwanted attention, or say something like "I'm sorry, we haven't been properly introduced," escalate to "I beg your pardon," and then ignore them.
posted by grouse at 9:29 AM on February 5, 2007


Heh, I guess I'm sort of internally having this argument. I will sometimes have a MP3 player or book, but on occasion (say, coming back from a bar) I'll forget or it won't be convenient. I get frustrated when I think, "Oh, I should really bring a book so no creepy men talk to me." Why should I be tied to that? And I think my vibe-o-meter is off whack now that I've moved to DC, because for months beforehand I was told by everybody to not go past Capitol Hill, and certainly not out of NW; I was told that I shouldn't step outside my apartment after dark without an escort (preferably male), and I've observed everyone on the bus ignoring people who try to talk. I've heard stories of people following females off the bus to their homes and assaulting them, but I'm not sure if that'd be because she ignored them or talked to them or if he just picked a random vulnerable target. All of this has made me both paranoid and rebellious (I don't want to get assaulted, but I also don't want to live in a cage).

I don't normally feel unsafe when confronted by people, I'm happy to give the time or directions or a hand. I guess the real issue is that I've never had to be assertive in public situations, and now it seems that I do. Thanks.
posted by landedjentry at 9:33 AM on February 5, 2007


It's a good skill to learn! Good luck to you, you'll be fine.
posted by agregoli at 9:44 AM on February 5, 2007


...because for months beforehand I was told by everybody to not go past Capitol Hill, and certainly not out of NW; I was told that I shouldn't step outside my apartment after dark without an escort (preferably male)...

For the record, that's the same advice everybody gets before moving to DC (I got it myself), and it usually comes from people who lived in DC 15+ years ago, if they ever lived here at all. Forget it. Be smart, trust your instincts, but don't live in fear. You will be fine.
posted by somanyamys at 9:48 AM on February 5, 2007


She's not an entertainment center[...]. It does not make her crazy for not wanting to talk to strangers, but I think it makes a lot of people in this thread look like an ass for implying as much. She asked for advice on how to avoid having to speak to people, not contradictions on how she should feel, and not to worry about being assaulted, raped, or "blown up" by these strangers. It sounds as if she just just wants to commute in peace, and I don't blame her.

Bingo. Do not tell this woman she shouldn't feel the way she does, any more than you would tell someone asking what breed of dog to get that they should get a bird instead or should be able to live without pets. If you enjoy talking to random strangers on buses, good for you. Your feelings are of no relevance to this question.
posted by languagehat at 10:41 AM on February 5, 2007 [4 favorites]


The people who are pointing out that most busfolk aren't rapists or murderers are correct, but they're missing the point.

Some are dangerous, and none have any appreciable chance of contributing anything positive to your life, so the expected value of an encounter with one is pain.

That alone is a good enough reason to avoid them. The question simply becomes what is the safest way to avoid them, and I think some of the above answers (iPod, terseness, ignoring) are all good.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 10:42 AM on February 5, 2007


Oh, I like the Miss Manners responce grouse, hilarious! It's even funnier since this effectively the responce British girls use.

A friend of a friend lives in Italy & gets harassed by middle aged Italian guys all the time (as does any female in any latin culture). She just replies using all feminine conjugations when refering to them, really throws them off. I'm guessing this may also work in Spanish with Mexicans in the U.S. but not in France (more modern, less macho).
posted by jeffburdges at 10:51 AM on February 5, 2007


I think to some extent, just knowing that I am both capable and willing to speak up if the situation escalates makes me calmer, and makes it easier to objectively assess what's actually happening.

I've yelled at guys on subways who thought they could get away with groping me because it was crowded. I have a loud loud voice when I want to (years of acting training), and "STOP TOUCHING ME," said loudly and with absolute authority, works remarkably quickly. Or, the other day, I was on a semi-crowded bus that emptied out considerably, and when I sat down, an older guy launched himself into the seat next to me and gave me a weird look. Rather than contemplate what he meant by it, I just stood up immediately and moved to the back of the bus. Not rudely, not in a huff, just in a way to protect my peace of mind.

Knowing that I'm willing to do that means that I'm not constantly running an interior monologue of "omg omg omg what do I do if this guy gets weird?" I know what I'll do if the guy gets weird -- I'll move or I'll yell -- so I can pay more attention to whether he's actually being weird.

This won't, of course, protect you from all the crazier crazies, but it does make commuting a bit less intimidating or nerve-wracking when someone does start acting up.
posted by occhiblu at 10:54 AM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yup, that confidence is great. I too, move or yell. Or both, on a couple of occaisons. It has served me well.
posted by agregoli at 11:04 AM on February 5, 2007


I never make eye contact with strangers if I don't have to and ignore anyone who tries to impose themselves on my space. My personal experience is that whackjobs and crackies are excrutiatingly tedious to interact with in this setting and aren't interesting even in the least bit. I don't owe anyone even a millisecond of my time. The fact that I'm standing next to you on a train means absolutely nothing and if you take it to mean that we are somehow bound together for that brief moment then that's your delusion and I would encourage you to continue nursing it as I crank up the volume on my iPod.
posted by The Straightener at 11:13 AM on February 5, 2007


Know this: the only reason a guy on the bus could feel mad that you don't want to talk to him, is that he feels he has some right to your attentions simply by virtue of the fact that he's taken a liking to you. If he feels entitled to access to you simply because he wants it, your instincts were right: that's a dangerous guy to talk to.

I'd recommend developing a badass city girl face. No more placid, soft-eyed suburban exterior for you (at least when you're out alone at night or in otherwise perilous circumstances). Feel serene on the inside but your exterior should say very clearly, "Fuck off."

You seem like a nice person, so you're likely to feel guilty about acting like that at first, but it really is a matter of safety, if not convenience.
posted by textilephile at 11:43 AM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


In fact, completely ignoring somebody who has probably made an innocent effort to engage you in casual conversation, makes YOU look like the crazy person, IMHO.

Ride the subway in New York. Your opinion will change.
posted by oaf at 12:02 PM on February 5, 2007 [2 favorites]


I find that giving off a strong vibe of "LEAVE ME ALONE" works for DC-area weirdos. Book or iPod armor can aid in this.
posted by frecklefaerie at 12:06 PM on February 5, 2007


On an empty-ish subway, I try to be as unfriendly looking as possible, to discourage conversation. If someone creepy gets on, I usually avoid eye contact and put on a "death face" indicating that I refuse to react or engage them. Almost as though I don't notice them or am supremely bored. Also, I tend to sit down like a "tough guy," slouching, and taking up a lot of room and making my physical space as large as I can. Something about projecting my right to exist.
posted by unknowncommand at 12:06 PM on February 5, 2007


Say politely "I am not in a mood for talking" and people will understand.

I don't know where you reside ..... but in places like San Francisco or New York, saying "I am not in a mood for talking" to someone who's more or less obviously off-balance mentally may likely only encourage more aggressive and overt off-balance-ness. I speak from experience.
posted by blucevalo at 12:34 PM on February 5, 2007


One thing I liked when taking buses through non-great parts of LA (as a tiny, sixteen-year-old white girl) was making myself the weirdest person on the bus. At the time I was working on folding 1000 origami cranes and so I had a lot of little papers and a jar, and I'd sit near the back of the bus every day, folding. People would come up and talk to me, but they had a specific question that they wanted to ask ("what you doing, girl?"), and I had a built-in excuse to stop talking ("sorry, but these really need a lot of attention"). Because I was doing something that most people totally didn't get, I also could pull off being blind, deaf, non-English-speaking, or crazy easily. I did all four as the situation required.

When people were nice to me, I could give them a crane, and other people who rode the bus at the same time I did came to feel a little protective of me. Obviously this only works if you take the same route at the same time every day.
posted by crinklebat at 12:36 PM on February 5, 2007 [2 favorites]


Also, I tend to sit down like a "tough guy," slouching, and taking up a lot of room and making my physical space as large as I can.

This does tend to dissuade a lot of people. A professor once told my class that women should not be afraid to take up the space that they need. Curled in shoulders and a shrinking stance send a message about a lack of confidence.

I also want to note that I have had some of the most interesting and memorable conversations with some random people on the subway in Boston (conversations they initiated.) One guy actually got the entire train car telling jokes, and when he got off shouted "Jokes, not guns!"
posted by nekton at 12:38 PM on February 5, 2007


I live in Chicago and frequently ride the 66 and the 49 buses (I also used to ride the #4 a lot). I honestly think that deranged people actively seek out these particular routes. Furthermore these buses seem to draw individuals with a certain type of derangement (mental, chemical or otherwise), one that compels them to include other people in the festivities, either the entire bus or specific people of their choosing.

Sometimes they are loud and aggressive, but they can just as easily be calm (at first) so that it takes part of a conversation to realize "wow this guy is fucking nuts, and starting to scare me." Now I'm a big guy, but I can understand how landedgentry might be intimidated in such a situation. Heck, sometimes I'm intimidated. After a couple of incidents of the second type (and I think NYC subway riders can relate) most people are not as eager to be engaged in conversation by random riders.

This may sound harsh, but what bothers me almost as much as the crazies are the lonely people. The ones who strike up a conversation with you because random strangers on the bus are their only source for human interaction. I feel bad about this, and I wish I could be a better person and indulge them, but it depresses me. Maybe it makes me a bad person, but I can't help feeling like I'm being pulled into someone else's sad existence, and I start thinking "there but for the grace of God go I," and that's not why I ride the bus. I ride it to get from place to place.

I wish we lived in communities like those they (apparently) have in Ireland where people are open and friendly to each other on public transit, and I wish I could be more tolerant of the lonely people, but I can't. Besides, I don't go around seeking out random commuters to unload my neuroses and anxieties onto. I have Metafilter for that.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:58 PM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


On the space issue, I nearly got hit by a guy on the DC metro a few weeks ago because I was taking up my alotted seat space -- he was wearing an enormous puffy jacket and wanted not just his seat space but part of mine, too, and when he nudged over into a quarter of my seat and got all angry that I wouldn't move over any more, he swung his arm back as though he was about to hit me and looked apoplectic. I got up and moved. It was really disturbing. Here's to you, scary puffy jacket man.

Also, for a completely different way to handle weird strangers who mutter profanity at you, I highly recommend the approach of mimi smartypants: see her blog entry on this on this page under the all caps heading Beginning of a beautiful friendship. Genius, and makes me happy to think of it.

Otherwise I am in the camp of those here who say it's not your job to provide strange and often creepy men with entertainment for their commute, and agree with the headphone/book method.
posted by onlyconnect at 1:59 PM on February 5, 2007


And start not giving money to homeless guys.. don't even speak to them when they ask. It'll make all your other city interactions easier.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:31 PM on February 5, 2007


Ditto on the mimi smartypants -- whenever I think "crazies on the bus," I think mimi.

Men know perfectly well that women feel vulnerable when they are alone in public. They know this. So you can assume that any guy who is persistent about making you uncomfortable in public is deliberately taking advantage of your instinct to be polite at all times. And that is very, very impolite. You aren’t under any obligation to be accomodating.

Indeed.

I also recommend cultivating "city girl face." When I worked in downtown Boston, our office was on a tiny sidestreet off Downtown Crossing (where many subway and bus lines meet). I'd often get the most hilarious, yet inappropriate, things yelled at me.

"BABY! YOUR ASS IS SO FINE! I JUST HAD TO TELL YOU THAT."

That one got a smile. I couldn't help it.

But most of the time, I gave them the ol' Patented Icy Stare, which tends to work pretty well once you've mastered it.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 2:40 PM on February 5, 2007


I'd often get the most hilarious, yet inappropriate, things yelled at me.

Once, I was walking toward my house. There is a small nightclub on the way. A guy started the "Hey Girl" thing, which I ignored. Then he yelled out, "FINE! I don't like girls with afros* ANYWAY- I like girls with looooong hair!". Hysterical.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:48 PM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


I've been riding the city bus for years. Getting a car this year, though--boo yeah!

Lots o' harassment. Oy, the stories I could tell. Not enough space here.

I'm in my 40's now and riding the bus as a lone woman still bothers the crap out of me. It's fricking soul killing. If it's not crazy people and horny old guys, it's something else. I struck up a conversation with a harmless looking Down syndrome girl, I suppose because I thought it would be good karma or something (all right, all right, that was a crappy liberal-guilt reason to do it). Anyway, she turned out to be a bit of a whack job--started telling me in a very loud voice about how her mother gives her baths. Apparently she's allowed to have glitter on her reproductive organs after the bath--she called it her "foofie." "Mommy puts glitter on my foofie," I believe was the gist. Then she started yelling at me, screaming, "You're embarassed, aren't you? You're EMBARASSED!" I got off before my stop just to get out of there.

The other thing that takes the stuffing out of me every single day is being stared at on the bus. I suppose this happens because I'm, I don't know, normal looking. Well groomed, whatever. It's reverse discrimination. I'm a fricking freak on the bus because I don't smell bad and sing to myself.

It gets so, so old--all my sympathies with the OP.
posted by frosty_hut at 2:59 PM on February 5, 2007 [2 favorites]


The best part, really, was the "I just had to tell you that." (Emphasis on "tell," not "had).

Like, what? Your brain would explode if you didn't utter those words Right Now?
posted by bitter-girl.com at 3:02 PM on February 5, 2007


People seem to be leaping from "eccentric strangers" to "predatory rapists," which are not the same thing. Then people seem to be compounding that by adding in stories about guys that inappropriately hit on girls. All of these are separate situations and don't necessarily need to be handled or thought about in the same way.

I'll address the original issue and leave the dramatic alarmist stuff alone: Personally, I am the most anti-social person I know, but when an eccentric (or not) stranger engages me in conversation, as long as it's not super loud, I have no problem chatting; people tend to fascinate me. An ex of mine used to marvel at how random people always talked to me, as if they knew, somehow, that I wouldn't mind. Eccentric strangers (unless they're, you know, ranting and waving a gun around) are no more or less dangerous than everyone else. That being said, I fully respect and understand how it makes you uncomfortable (it doesn't exactly make me comfortable either), but I think you handled yourself fine.

The crazy ranting guy brand of eccentric stranger, when directed at you, is harder to deal with. Some of them will respond in the customary way (i.e. by shutting up) to being ignored while others will just rant louder. It's hard to devise a strategy in dealing with those kinds of people so I usually try to assess the situation and decide whether polite friendliness will ignite or defuse. Sometimes, regardless of what we'd like, dealing with other human beings is complicated, eccentric strangers or not. When the crazy ranting is not directed at you, ignoring them is the most obvious solution.
posted by eunoia at 4:05 PM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm about to describe to you how I handle this. Before I do, I want to point out to you that I regret the necessity of "handling" it extremely. I wish we lived in a society where this didn't have to be the way. But we don't.

I don't let anyone talk to me in public. I turn away and ignore them. 90% of the time when someone approaches me in public, it's a cadge for money. What they get from me is a stern "Good luck to you," nothing else. (It's honest, at least; I don't wish them ill.) The other 10% of the time it's someone asking directions. I try to help those people, but if they need more than 3 or 4 sentences of instruction they can get it from someone else.

If they invade my personal space or touch me, they get a stiff-arm, much like Tiki Barber would use to keep Brian Urlacher out of his face. In my 6 years in New York City, this failed to get the point across two times: once on a lonely stretch of sidewalk at night, the other in an empty subway station at 3 AM. The first guy I knocked to the ground and walked away; the second guy would just not back up and I ended up having to hit him rather hard in the face - I'm pretty sure I broke his nose, it was streaming blood - there was blood everywhere - and he ran out of the subway station.

What I've learned from this is that in the vast majority of cases, nothing bad happens from ignoring people; and in a small minority of cases, it's possible that people really are setting out to have an interaction with you that you really don't want to be involved in. This small minority of cases, though, has pretty much made me not want to involve myself with any strangers at all for any reason, and I would empathize with and support anyone's decision to do the same.

If it matters, I'm 5'10, about 200 lbs, and not particularly good looking; when I am not smiling I can look somewhat forbidding, which I think sets the barrier rather high for a person to decide to fuck with me. I used to walk all over NYC at all hours of the day and night and I only have those two negative encounters to show for it.

For what it's worth, I think a smaller person, a female person, or an attractive person might be more likely to be fucked with by people, and so I'd just suggest a higher level of situational awareness; don't be afraid to shout out to attract the attention of passersby.

Finally, as someone who is aware of all of these things, the number of situations in which I would ever attempt to speak to a random woman in an urban setting is vanishingly small. I would never ask a woman for directions, because I do not wish to frighten her; if a woman drops something on the street I have found that my attempt to return it often is greeted with a look of stark panic, at least until she figures out what is going on. Certain fucking assholes may be out to get a thrill from this, frotteurs and such; be certain they are doing so on purpose with full awareness of the inappropriateness of their actions, and don't give them the time of day.

I hear that things are different in small towns. I've never lived in a small town, so I wouldn't know.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:39 PM on February 5, 2007 [4 favorites]


I'd often get the most hilarious, yet inappropriate, things yelled at me.

"BABY! YOUR ASS IS SO FINE! I JUST HAD TO TELL YOU THAT."


I think my personal favorite unintentionally funny street harassment moment is when I was walking down the street with a male friend and some crazy guy started yelling at me, "I looove your big ass! I can't live in the same woooorld as your ass!" He then turned his attention to my male companion, " ...and I ain't talking to you! I ain't no homo! I just looove her big ass..."

Comedy gold.
posted by echolalia67 at 7:13 PM on February 5, 2007


I think especially for a woman that you should ignore anyone who starts talking to you. Too many people get the wrong idea when a woman responds to them or they look for an easy mark. Use your best judgement but remember that you are never really alone on the bus, the driver is there too. If someone starts talking to you that you don't want to talk with get up and move closer to the driver.

As a guy I ignore the crazy people. Sometimes I'll respond to a conversation if I'm bored and if it gets weird I can usually out crazy them.
posted by JJ86 at 5:45 AM on February 6, 2007


Just another side note when working in the hood I would hear shouts from down the block or across the street or wherever of "HEY, YOU!!". I got in the habit of ignoring anyone that would shout at me and just assumed they were shouting at someone they actually knew. Never turn to look and pretend you don't hear them. The drunk, crazy or crack-addled person would usually lose interest in any one not responding to them.
posted by JJ86 at 5:49 AM on February 6, 2007


I've posted this before:


The fundemental right of civilized people is the right to be left alone--Louis Brandeis.

Ignoring them doesn't always work for me--I get too much of "Let's hassle the weak bitch".
posted by brujita at 9:49 AM on February 6, 2007


If someone sits down next to you in the aisle seat in an otherwise empty bus, or if they're deliberately touching you or pinning you into place while you're standing in the aisle, or if they insist on engaging you in conversation when you've made it clear you're not interested, they may just be thoughtless but it's also possible that they're taking the first step towards harrassment. If you feel threatened in any way you should follow your instincts and extricate yourself from the situation as soon as possible, avoiding any kind of (further) interaction with the person.

Get up (if you're seated), say "Excuse me", and find another seat or somewhere to stand near the driver. If the person won't let you pass, repeat the "EXCUSE ME" in a loud voice. If that doesn't help, raise hell. Don't explain yourself, what you're doing may be rude but you don't owe anyone an explanation for wanting to be somewhere else.

A lot of sensible advice on how to avoid potentially dangerous situations can be found at
No-nonsense self-defense: five stages of violent crime and other pages on the same site.
posted by rjs at 12:06 PM on February 6, 2007


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