Aggression from random strangers
August 4, 2012 6:28 AM   Subscribe

I seem to draw aggression from random strangers. I don't know why. I don't know if I'm imagining it (but I don't think I am). And since I don't know why it happens, I don't know what I can do to stop it.

What to tell you. I'm an adult male, not a member of a visible minority, typically dressed for the office though on off hours usually casual. I'm a bit of a loner and suffer from near-crippling social anxiety but (I think) I hide it well. I also don't presently have anyone I could ask “what the hell is this” and get what I know to be an honest answer. My most fervent wish second to being able to mind-read for a day would be to have someone follow me around and videotape me going about my business, so I could see what that looks like. See if I'm doing something... oddly. (my brand of social phobia is of the “I'm a freak – surely I look like I don't belong here” variety. Yeah, I'm seeing a therapist.) So maybe I stand out. Maybe my nervousness about standing out is what makes me stand out. Or maybe I don't stand out at all. No way for me to know.

I used to think I was imagining the aggression thing but over time I've had witnesses. I was sitting on a park bench with a woman I was seeing and a jogger was passing us by. I glanced up at the jogger and she looked over and said [incomprehensible thing in angry tone]. The girl I was with looked up suddenly and was like “What was that?!” and I shrugged, saying, this is just something that happens. I notice a panhandler being maybe a little forceful with others. I walk by and suddenly he's shouting, angry, cursing. And most recently (precipitating this question) I'm on the bus seated in front of the back doors headed home from an evening out and as we approach a stop and people are milling about behind me suddenly I'm sprayed with droplets of... something. A drink perhaps? (I hope?) So I go home just completely bummed out because again it seems like a random stranger has decided that I'm someone who could use some picking on.

Is this something everyone experiences now and again, and the difference is that I'm not confident enough to be sure I'm not the problem; they are? Or is it possible that people are so book-by-its-cover that people see me and a subset think: asshole (or something – it disheartens me how easily people judge others by appearance). This has gone on for years. Not with frequency, but it's not a fun addition to the social anxiety I already carry around. Thoughts? Theories? What can I do?
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (42 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Two thoughts:

1) It could really just be confirmation bias. There is a certain amount of friction in the world, and once you're on the alert, it's easy to see patterns whether or not they're there. Also, the perspective distance between things that happen to you and things that happen to other people may make this hard to judge.

- on the other hand -

2) Is it possible that you break the staring/eye contact norms for these settings? Eye contact and/or direct study of other people can be seen as aggressive, especially if you're already projecting a little tension because of the social anxiety. Tense + eye contact or staring or study = percieved aggression or judgment to a lot of people.

I don't know that you're doing the second, but there are cues some of your examples (jogger, homeless person, though not the bus) and from the language of study/observation.
posted by mercredi at 6:46 AM on August 4, 2012 [14 favorites]

I think many of your theories are definitely possibilities--you could just look self-conscious, allowing for bullies to prey on that. You could have a physical demeanor that others find threatening--are you particularly buff or tall? Here's one--having lived in New York City for a while now, if I look a stranger in the eye, I'm more likely to get some kind of aggressive response than if I didn't look them in the eye at all. Do you look strangers in the eye or maybe look like you're looking them in the eye? Or maybe you're accidentally spacing out and staring at them (I do that a lot on public transportation; I daydream and get into a daze and my eyes glaze over while they are pointed at a person but I'm not really *looking* at them). Or this could just be within the normal range of experience that you are just more sensitive to than others.
posted by greta simone at 6:50 AM on August 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

To me, it sounds like a confirmation bias. I sometimes have people act like assholes to me in public for no reason, but when that happens, I tend to attribute their behavior to them being assholes and me getting caught in the crosshairs because, well, someone was going to, and I just happened to be there. I don't attribute their behavior to something I did to cause them to be assholes to me specifically.

A few things that have happened to me over the past couple years, to give you some calibration data: Some random dude started screaming at me on the subway, for no apparent reason. A woman backed directly into my car while I was sitting in traffic. One Halloween, someone rang my doorbell for at least fifteen minutes, at midnight. I think this is a pretty normal level of random weirdness/aggression, and I don't attribute it to something about me that causes people to be aggressive towards me.

Here's a more specific example: There is a woman at my local Panera who shows up every morning at exactly 8 AM and goes to Her Table. The table is a small one, by the window, next to a power outlet. She does not have a laptop. Frequently people who do have laptops get to the Panera before her and sit at Her Table before she gets there. Whenever this happens, she goes into Attack Mode (or Passive-Agressive Mode) and guilts, glares, yells, or otherwise harasses them until they surrender the table or leave.

The first (and only) time I sat at Her Table, I assumed she was going after me, specifically, because it was me sitting there. But I've seen her do this to at least four other people over the past few years. It's not about me. It's about Her Table. Her victim of the day is just whoever happens to sit down at Her Table sometime before 8 AM on a weekday.

I don't think this is about you. I think this is about your social anxiety making you see random incidents as connected when the much more likely explanation is that sometimes people are jerks, and you're the one whose number is up.
posted by pie ninja at 6:51 AM on August 4, 2012 [19 favorites]

I wouldn't be shocked if you are breaking social norms or behaving different than other people in minor ways, for example, eye contact, or even just seeming self conscious and therefore out of place. Those are tags to discuss with your therapist, who can't actually observe you.

But people are assholes to people other than you, and this stuff does happen sometimes, and regardless, it's not your fault and you're not the problem. The people being assholes are the problem.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:16 AM on August 4, 2012

I'm going to assume the panhandler is part of the informal economy, and will therefore assume there is a chance he is homeless. Studies show there is a strong correlation between homelessness and mental illness. You say yourself he was already being forceful with others. The panhandler was struggling and you just happened to be hit, along with others, in the crossfire.

Finally, the bus incident can't count. I take the bus often, have been hit with backpacks, have had someone spill their drink on me and have been pushed as the bus jerked. None of these things I took personally. All of those things I pinned on the awkward nature of navigating a crowded, moving, space with bags, drinks, strollers, etc. It sounds like, in your case, someone unwittingly spilled their drink as they were leaving the bus.

The only one of the three examples that seems directly targeted at you is the one with the jogger. And even then, that one is dismissible because that kind of random outburst happens to all of us. Whatever issues she has are on her, not you. If it's any comfort, I'm a woman have had guys randomly scream insults at me. Again, I never took it personally. Their poor behavior is on them, not me.
posted by Milau at 7:23 AM on August 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

suddenly I'm sprayed with droplets of... something. A drink perhaps? (I hope?) So I go home just completely bummed out because again it seems like a random stranger has decided that I'm someone who could use some picking on.

Oh, sweetheart, that stinks. But even if it's not an accident (which seems pretty likely), that's a thing that happens sometimes --- not because of anything about you personally, just because you were there when the liquid-spraying jerk[s] happened.

I was walking home one evening, dressed a little nicer than usual, carrying my new sueded-fabric bag, feeling happy and confident and self-possessed, and only a block from home, when a car sped by, a guy leaned out the passenger side, and a cup of what I really really hope was warm, melted milkshake hit me right in the chest, splattering all over me.

I squealed in surprise, disgust, and --- more than anything --- outrage, hurried home, peeled off my clothes, took a Silkwood shower, and washed everything, crying while I did it. I had been having an unusually good day and these jerks undid it with a split second of nastiness. But I knew that it had nothing to do with me: I was just the target that happened to be there when those creeps felt like being awful to someone.

And the same thing is almost certainly true of you. It's not about you as a person, because these strangers don't know you as a person. It's probably not even about your demeanor; though it's possible that your anxiety is prompting some hostility, that's not necessary to explain these occasional hostile interactions because they are not that out of the ordinary.

Is this something everyone experiences now and again, and the difference is that I'm not confident enough to be sure I'm not the problem; they are?

I think this is likely the answer. Sometimes complete strangers just unload their irritation or even rage on passers-by. It's hard to predict what will trigger it, but it isn't necessarily anything to do with you.

I can tell you this: I am generally treated pleasantly by strangers (partly, I'm sure, because I present as a pleasant middle-class gray-haired white woman, which means I'm near-invisible and for most people probably register as "mostly harmless"), but every so often, a panhandler gets angry with me as I walk past. Every so often, a jogger gives me a dirty look for no reason I can discern. Every so often, even in a wide aisle where I've left plenty of room, a fellow supermarket shopper bustles past me with haughty irritation.

Sometimes, people feel an uncontainable need to express their irritation with the world and with their fellow humans, but they can't do it to the world or their fellow humans; that's too big a target to hit! So they do it to some hapless by-stander. Everyone's been that by-stander. I would wager that most of us have been the vaguely hostile stranger once or twice, too, when our tempers got away from us.

But if you're counting the acts of hostility, large and small, then that's what you're keeping track of. Try this: count the other events. Notice how often you have a neutral or even pleasant interaction with a stranger. Uneventful transaction at the grocery check-out? Normal. Cordial silence in an elevator? Normal. Got on and off the bus without a hostility? Normal. (Actually, on public transit, any trip without a small act of hostility is oh-so-slightly better than normal.) Once you're looking at the entire landscape of your daily interactions, you'll probably see these occasional hostilities for what they are: small blips on the radar, nothing to worry about.
posted by Elsa at 7:25 AM on August 4, 2012 [25 favorites]

I think it's mostly personalizing these things due to the social phobia coupled with a mild dose of Some People Are Just Assholes. Any or all of these things likely had nothing to do with you, and if by some chance one of them did have something to do with you, that kind of thing happens to all of us now and then. Also, sometimes people act like assholes because they were already angry and looking for an outlet, and now and then each of us gets unlucky and encounters one of them.

In short, I think you are largely misinterpreting these things and giving too much weight to the rare ones you might have interpreted correctly and your working on your social anxiety in therapy is probably the right thing to be doing, rather than worrying that you are possibly giving off a cloud of pheromones that make people mean to you.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 7:52 AM on August 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I can't tell from your post if this is any more than what normal people run into. However, I have something of the opposite situation: I know how to calm down crazy situations and I fairly often get "random acts of kindness" type of reactions from people. I used to think people were "just being nice" because "it is the right thing to do", which was a combination of projection (because that is the kind of thing I do) and lack of perspective (because this was my "normal").

Some observations from my life and thoughts about how that might apply to your situation:
Attractiveness makes a difference. When I was very ill and stopped being so attractive, I got less spontaneous "niceness". Getting healthier and looking better again increased the random acts of niceness in my life. It is possible you look geeky or nerdy (i.e. Socially awkward) enough to inspire the "pick on the social outcast" response in people who are so inclined.

I have had several incidents where I didn't look any different but was suddenly being treated different. On those occasions, when I asked my oldest son what was with that, he invariably told me I smelled better than the week before. Smell is a powerful social influencer, one people are often not consciously aware of. It is possible there is (at least sometimes) something about how you smell that "provokes" people.

Body language. Someone has already commented previously about eye contact being provocative. I used to be a professional victim type as far as men constantly hitting on me. I thought it was because I was beautiful. Then I got real sick, put on a lot of weight and became invisible to men. When I began looking better, the steroids I had been on left me with more of a rack than I ever had. Men stared. But they did not approach me. I was baffled and had to rethink my assumptions. I no longer get the kind of harassment I used to get, even though men hit on me. I am not entirely sure what I do differently. I am clear it is a body language thing and I think less eye contact is a big part of it.
posted by Michele in California at 7:55 AM on August 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

my brand of social phobia is of the “I'm a freak – surely I look like I don't belong here” variety
Well, I've seen people whom I suspect of having some variant of this type of condition who look up and about, and then away, rather more often than many other people do. To the outsider it seems like that person is trying to catch one's eye or otherwise is calling for attention, but sort of not really. This might in turn provoke some 'hey, what's going on' reaction, and some people are simply not very good at handling this, they get aggressive. Tentative explanation...

Otherwise, perhaps you can improve your 'being-in-the-right-spot' strategies. I guess that many people are just being smart about avoiding confrontation by, you know, not taking that road at that time of the day/night, by not ever sitting in the back of the bus, by standing at the other end of the bar from where that huge bully has his beer (or by not even entering a bar with a huge bully), and by forcing themselves to not once look in the direction of potential trouble - that type of thing.

Then finally, as others said, one does sometimes run into a messy situation, and there may be little one did wrong. To deal with unprovoked aggression has been a part of being human for tens of thousands of years.
posted by Namlit at 7:59 AM on August 4, 2012

I've got to agree with the "confirmation bias" theory.

Do you live in a large city? I've found that randomly hostile people are far more packed together and likely to express themselves in the city. I've experienced no shortage of puzzling glares, creepy stares, and outright yelling from strangers with whom I haven't interacted anymore than being near their space. I think it's human to take this personally, but just as pie ninja's Panera Lady example illustrates, preternaturally hostile people are usually just waiting for someone to get in their way and make themselves a target.

Think of it this way: given your self-awareness about how a stranger's hostility could reflect upon your own, it's likely you've already thought about signs you might exhibit (glaring, for example) and tried to avoid those by acting normally and respectfully toward strangers. If that's the case, suppose you do actually do something neutral that bothers people -- fidget nervously, run your fingers through your hair, avoid eye contact. Would that make their anger directed at you any more acceptable? Nope.

Your mysterious example with the jogger makes me wish I could have seen it -- maybe your legs were stretched out and she felt enormous offense at having to dodge them, maybe she'd just had a fight with a boyfriend who vaguely looks like you and it revitalized her anger, maybe you were wearing a shirt with a statement/political stance/band she vehemently dislikes. Your friend certainly didn't know what was up with it, so it must have been subtle and highly reflective of the jogger herself.

Because you're self-conscious, you're likely to know if you're looking like or being a jerk. The normal reaction to sudden assholes is anger, yes, but also an element of taken-aback-edness. If these people display no element of surprise with their anger, they're most likely just your run-of-the-mill, angry-at-the-world, ruin-everyone's-day types.
posted by aintthattheway at 8:04 AM on August 4, 2012

As others have said, it's possible that you're staring or making too much eye contact or whatever. But as someone who has social anxiety issues that manifest themselves in a variety of ways including assuming anyone who is laughing near me is laughing at me, it is really possible that you are taking personally things that have nothing to do with you.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:08 AM on August 4, 2012

My vote is confirmation bias, and that the tendency to personalize what other people are doing, to dwell on negative interactions, and to think this keeps happening because of something you're doing or putting out there IS the social anxiety... The social anxiety IS these thought patterns and the positive feedback loop they create. So the change that helps you will be in how you interpret the events around you, and in the things you dwell on with your thoughts.
posted by alphanerd at 8:10 AM on August 4, 2012

Nthing confirmation bias, and adding that you may be showing "weakness" because of your social anxiety. There are people -- I'll call them "social predators" who walk around seething with anger and are quick to home in on any target who looks "safe." In other words, they're looking for trouble, but they're too cowardly to pick on anyone who looks like they might fight back.

Most of what you describe seems like random interpersonal aggro, not directed at you, but aimed at you because you were nearby. Having lived in NYC all my life, I've learned to ignore almost all of this, because

1. These people are fucked in the head, which is fully their problem, and I refuse to make it mine
2. These people are fucked in the head, and they could be dangerous if provoked
3. I don't have the time and energy to waste on nut jobs; best to swiftly move on.

If you can't figure out why someone is spewing something at you, literally and figuratively, and you don't want to start a fight, remember: They're nuts. Ignore and move on. Ignore and move on.
posted by ROTFL at 8:14 AM on August 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm also going to agree with the confirmation bias theory, but I think these things are actually happening, which has turned INTO confirmation bias. I've had similar things happen to me for as long as I can remember (I'm a woman, FYI, which I think changes the dynamic somewhat and maybe makes it worse, because people do tend to be gentler with general), and I think it's a combination of demeanor, the social anxiety, and perhaps just how you gaze. I've been called out for staring when I didn't even realize I was doing it. There are so many subtle social cues we follow, and if you (and I) don't naturally follow all of those, it leads to...this. eg, with the running woman, she may have thought you were looking at her in a certain way that was distasteful, when you didn't even realize you were looking at her at all. I just want to acknowledge that I think what is happening is real. As for what to do, maybe be conscious of how/where you're looking when these things happen, and if there's any behavioral consistency you can adjust.
posted by FlyByDay at 8:19 AM on August 4, 2012

You mentioned dressing for the office. Do you dress somewhat better than the people you're around in these random encounters? A large proportion of the truly weird hostile encounters I've had were at times when I was wearing a shirt, tie, and dress slacks, and in some blue collar place. I've never been wealthy, but I do think it's sort of a trope - to a person who might be unemployed or underemployed, you look like Scrooge MCDuck.

Nothing - people just do weird shit, esp. in big cities. Also Nthing - low eye contact in crowded spaces.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:51 AM on August 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

What can I do?

Recast this as a superpower. You can emit a field in which assholes can't help but blow their cover.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:34 AM on August 4, 2012 [10 favorites]

It might be confirmation bias, it might not. You might be doing one of a number of things, unconsciously, that's making people react to you in unpleasant ways. My usual advice to people in this situation is to find a self-defense class - they're not just for women. There are a whole bunch of really easy postural cues you can learn to look either less or more aggressive depending on what you're actually doing. (It could be either - it's not a given that you're acting too meek, although it's the likelier choice unless you're a really big guy.)

I am as always happy to help find a class in your location, if you want to memail me.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:05 AM on August 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's good to hear you are not acting on these encounters. I have and it has cost me physical injury, several visits to jail, thousands of dollars in court fees, and nearly severed a number of relationships. To this day I struggle as to how to interpret cosmic justice, street survival, 'respek,' or dysfunctional criminal insanity.

I have plenty of areas to blame: my rough and tumble 'formative years' dodging gangs and various pecking order street fights, September 11, getting mugged, violent death of a family member and a friend. I must be marked, right?

At this point in my life there are too many areas I consider very healthy, of enormous fortune, flourishing, yet fragile. A wrong move or two could fuck it all up. More often now I call on the wisdom of the likes of Pema Chodron who notes the assholes are really your best teachers. You can learn a great deal about yourself from what they inspire in you.
posted by ezekieldas at 10:06 AM on August 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

My most fervent wish .... would be to have someone follow me around and videotape me going about my business, so I could see what that looks like. See if I'm doing something... oddly.

omg, I would love this job! If you're in Chicago and serious about this, you should mail me to discuss it. This is right up my alley, yo. I'll keep you out of the photos/video (or only shoot you discreetly from behind, or whatever) if that's your thing — I totally get it.
posted by heyho at 10:24 AM on August 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Probably confirmation bias, as people say above, but it's also possible that you might be broadcasting "low status" as you walk through the world. Keith Johnstone, in his book Impro (about improvisation in the theatre) talks extensively (and very entertainingly) about this.

People who broadcast low status do things like twitch, fidget, shuffle, blush at the slightest provocation, slump, and generally seem to apologize for taking up space. You might know someone like this in your workplace, or you might have had a teacher like this - they're the ones who can't keep discipline in their classrooms. If you play low status it's as if you are wearing a "kick me" sign.

The good news is that it's relatively easy to play high status. Simple things like keeping your head still when you speak or being the person to break eye contact first (but then *don't* look back at the person to see if they're still looking - that's reads incredibly low status).

Try taking an improvisational theater class and learn about playing status games. It's incredibly liberating to know that you can switch these things on and off and to see the comic potential. Alternatively, take a self-defense class - not necessarily to learn to be a martial artist, but to learn how to be in the street with confidence.
posted by jasper411 at 10:26 AM on August 4, 2012 [15 favorites]

You could try less eye contact and staring, modify body language to be less aggressive (don't look like you're ready to attack is the simplest way of putting it), smile more, and move out of peoples way before you have to.
posted by meepmeow at 10:35 AM on August 4, 2012

Regarding the "kick me" theory -- I think there's something to that. People who walk in big cities, especially NYC, develop a way of broadcasting their forward movement so that others don't run into them. It can seem very aggressive, but it actually is an adaptation to crowded, fast-moving sidewalks. If you're an habitual hangdog, you're just plain going to get run into or yelled at. That's life, so you learn to carry yourself or get mowed down.

Of your examples, though, none of these seem to fit exactly. The bus spray incident? You just don't have enough information. You got sprayed on. Could have been any number of things. Did you turn around, react, say "What the hell?" Somebody may have apologized if you dealt with the incident -- in a neutral manner -- rather than just totting up some assumptions about the assholery of the universe and slinking off. The panhandler, too, may just be prone to outbursts and you were the lucky recipient.

The woman jogger, though, is a potential issue. I suspect it's likely she thought you were ogling her. My own experience is that -- thanks to depression and the added difficulty of a lazy eye -- I tned to have difficulty with eye contact, and I am often concerned that women think I'm just staring at their breasts when it's completely inadvertent (like this tallish woman I ran into -- more or less literally -- rounding a corner at the grocery store). You may have been fidgety or had your eyes going everywhere for any number of reasons, and the jogger thought you were copping a look, so to speak, and you were acting guilty because she caught you.

The point being that you weren't -- from what you say -- and she was in the wrong. So there you have it. The world is sometimes wrong.

It's really not about how you attract friction, it's about how you handle the incidents at the time. Not sure what you need to do about someone running past -- you'll never see them again -- but in most instances when you encounter hostility, especially unwarranted hostility, simply react better.

See if I'm doing something... oddly.

You probably are. But here's the good news: so are most people. If you people-watch you'll begin to notice the ways in which OTHER people have tics and awkward movements and trip and drop things. It's very human.
posted by dhartung at 11:07 AM on August 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Nthing confirmation bias, especially since each of the three instances you've given us would be triggered by different factors anyhow: note how the contrasting assailants differ in gender, class, physical angle of approach, etc. Confirmation bias is the simplest and hence most logical explanation.

You asked if this is something 'everyone experiences' -- I'd say it depends where they live. In my experience such incidents are hundreds of times rarer in my current small city (50,000 people, in the Shenandoah Valley) than in some larger US cities and their suburbs. Maybe because the pace is slower, socioeconomic inequality is less dramatic, and social networks are more likely to overlap -- so people feel more trusting, but also less assured of anonymity. People can still be mean, of course, but lashing out at random passing strangers isn't really a thing.

If such incidents stress you out hugely (even though this treatment isn't personal, it's still dehumanizing), you might consider moving somewhere quieter and more interconnected.
posted by feral_goldfish at 11:16 AM on August 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Does your relaxed expression perhaps look sneery or arrogant? If you otherwise do not look like an alpha male that might provoke a "backlash".
posted by Omnomnom at 12:00 PM on August 4, 2012

I can tell you this is something everyone goes through, so it's not that you're being marked out in a general way for aggression (though if you're shy and nervous some arshole might interpret that as 'I can get away with doing this to him because it's not like there'll be any consequences - let rip!'). Some days all I have is negative encounters with sad, angry, frustrated or mentally ill people, and on those days it seems like everyone in the world is a needlessly rude dickhead.

What I will say is that I find people's general standards of behaviour goes down in smaller places rather than up. For example, last year I moved from a city of 14 million people to a (not even sure it's a city) of 500,000. In this smaller place, strangers in the street are more likely to comment on your clothes, say something horrible for no reason as they pass, people on the bus are more aggressive, I hear wayyyy more homophobic and anti-semitic stuff than I have in the past ten years, etc etc. In a bigger place, most people don't have the energy to devote to strangers they'll never see again, so they don't bother (though there are more mentally ill and people in general, so YMMV). So small town mentality can contribute to this, along with whatever issues the person is having that day.

As a woman, the shit I do sometimes get (also including the ever-present sexual harrassment) is almost exclusively from men. They know it's really high risk for me, a small unmuscled person, to engage with them. However, this happens to my partner too - I remember him being upset one day when a homeless panhandler screamed 'FAG!'at him, and the time someone kicked him in the back at the top of an escalator, unprompted. There are just a lot of troubled people and aresholes in the world, so my best advice is to just try not to take it personally.
posted by everydayanewday at 12:24 PM on August 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

The three examples you list don't seem unusual. Stuff like that happens to everyone. I'm pretty sure in those cases it wasn't about you or anything you were doing.

Maybe the jogging lady gets ogled and doesn't like it. Maybe she'd just been ogled or catcalled five and ten minutes previously as her boobs jiggled or the skin of her legs drew leers. Maybe she was having a bad day. Maybe you looked up and she caught it just in time to think you were leering and wasn't having it.

The panhandler, come on. That's not unusual at all. As someone mentioned, they're often homeless and disturbed. Could've been drunk or high. Could've just been a pressure technique that works. You can't attribute anything to that.

Without more detail, we don't know what the thing on the bus was. You don't even know what it was. You don't know what the liquid was and you don't say if you saw why or how it was shot at you. Accident? A jackass teen acting out? That very likely had nothing to do with you. And if it really was targeted at you maliciously, it's not because of anything about you personally, it's because someone felt like being a dick and you happened to be there. Or maybe you represented some category the person didn't like. Still random.

If you have a lot more examples, maybe we could start to see a pattern. But if the three things you mentioned had happened to me, I wouldn't be thinking I'm some kind of trouble magnet. Random stuff happens when you go out in the world.

I wonder if your extreme anxiety has you in a constant state of fear of screwing up socially, and so you always feel on the edge of it, and when something happens, you feel you must have screwed up somehow. None of us can know, but it wouldn't surprise me if you could chalk this up to some aspect of your anxiety.

I don't have extreme social anxiety, but I do have general anxiety, and I am worried a lot about messing things up or offending people, and I'm always second guessing myself and looking back and thinking, "They must think I'm an ass." It really factors into most of my social time, always there beneath the surface, a common thread running through it all, and always part of my inner monologue. Now and then I'll get feedback from someone to the effect of something I was worried about not being a big deal or something I thought I ruined not being bad at all. It happens enough that I realize I have a kind of distorted filter. Surely your anxiety plays into your perceptions and interpretations of things in the same way, kind of warping them.

The world is random chaos. When a wave comes at you out of nowhere, try to learn to surf it. It's a way to take the lack of control you have over the world and turn it into something that works for you, even if you would rather not have to deal with waves.
posted by Askr at 12:53 PM on August 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

A very plausible issue seems to me that a small number of unmistakable actual incidents that are all but inevitable if you spend a significant amount of time as a pedestrian/mass transit user in the city plus "near-crippling social anxiety" could add up to a whole lot of ambiguous incidents that are interpreted as hostility.

Confirmation bias in matters like this is really, really hard to genuinely buy from the inside, because you feel what you feel about the incidents and it's basically impossible to get real information about it. Reading your scenarios above they all seem ambiguous to me. Jogger lady it might be totally unrelated, it might be she just caught your eye at the wrong moment and interpreted it as leering or whatever. Panhandler is angry already, luck of the draw. The spray thing who knows, there's no clear evidence that it was even actually a person (if the bus was air-conditioned it could have been spitting condensation, this has happened to me more than once.

Things that have happened to me: a man in a wheelchair is waiting at the end of a hallway at the building where I work, there is a social services site there that is not yet open. I catch him out of the corner of my eye and give a completely innocuous look, just registering something odd. "What are you looking at?!" Just instant hostile anger. "Nothing," I say, totally neutral and innocuous. "Bitch!" (I'm a man). Panhandler in the street: "just give me a quarter man!" (this is without any prior lead-in). "I don't have anything". "You bitch ass punk!" Guy asks me for a cigarette when I'm still smoking. Actually he doesn't ask me, he says "Cigarette". It's 2 in the morning and I'm off a night shift at a factory, I'm not up for teaching etiquette, I just give him a cigarette. "Light." I give him a light and my lighter's flame is cranked a little high. Angrily after he lights it: "You trying to burn my face?!" I assume this is a rhetorical question so I ignore it so he repeats it! "No!" I say in complete exasperation. He smokes the rest of his (my) cigarette in silence, on his way out of the bus shelter he pats my arm and says "thanks". In another bus stop a fairly drunk man asks me "how many black n****rs have you murdered?" (he is black). That one was spooky but we actually ended up having a reasonably calm conversation about racism. Walking across a bridge with a woman friend who is probably half a foot taller than me. Guy looks her up and down just like an absolute creep and sort of croons "hey angel" at her and then gives me this incredibly contemptuous smirk. She gives him a "you gotta be kidding me" look, I am as always in these situations momentarily dumbstruck in bafflement at the human condition. She shrugs it off later - it just happens.

I don't know if these comparisons help any. I feel like, you know, there are a lot of angry people out there, and in general it doesn't have anything to do with me, I'm just bound to intersect with it. Your demeanor could be attracting more than average but it's so hard to tell and even harder to do anything about it. The thing is I used to be bothered a lot by ideas that strangers were directing dislike, contempt, whatever at me, it is one of the things I mostly sorted out over 5 years or so of weekly therapy - such thoughts still come and go but I've learned to quickly set them aside and not dwell on them, and I'm now convinced that 90% of what I perceived was imagined. And even what's real, you know, you don't know the backstory. Just the other day I got in line at the grocery store, thinking I'd spotted a quick line, and the people in front of me had this crazy overloaded cart top and bottom and I just a rude expression slip out and they heard it and they were mortified (though of course they had nothing to be sorry for, it's not like it's rude to buy what you need at the grocery store as long as you're in an unlimited lane) and I was mortified and it was just uncomfortable. I didn't mean for them to hear so I shouldn't have said it out loud but it was too late and there you go. I think your best bet is to work on your social anxiety in general and your internal reactions to these situations in these particular cases. You can only do so much about how you present in public.
posted by nanojath at 12:57 PM on August 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

This has never happened to me, but it happens to my boyfriend on what seems like a twice-weekly basis. People swear at him from cars, homeless people lace him with obscenities, he's gotten occasional homophobic bullshit from passers-by. One guy even tried to run him over. He's handsome, young-ish, and wears smart, bright, semi-casual clothes, but he's also super-demure and tries hard to mind his own business. I don't know if it's a gay thing or not, but it sucks to have him come home and tell me yet another story about how some random person decided to make his day worse. (He walks in L.A. more than most people I know, so it's possible that he's just encountering such people more because he's actually out in the street among them, unlike most vehicle-bound people in this town.)
posted by mykescipark at 1:26 PM on August 4, 2012

Personally, when things like this happen to me (in a reasonable safe setting), I calmly ask the person why they have a problem with me, and apologize for the misunderstanding (if applicable).

As others have noted above, the answer frequently involves eyes - For example, the jogger may have taken your gaze as bluntly "checking her out", when in reality you might have simply watched a squirrel in the background, or even just spaced out and not had a clue about the contents of the scene before you (I do that one far too often when I get deep in thought).
posted by pla at 1:48 PM on August 4, 2012

This may very well be confirmation bias.

If you are in fact getting targeted more often than most people, my guess is that you are putting out microsignals that communicate your vulnerability to aggressive people who, for their part, are always and automatically scanning for targets.

Examples: used to get bullied a lot, everywhere I went. I experienced a hell of a lot of rude behaviour, to the point where people were telling me that I really did seem to be on the sharp end of a lot more and a lot worse rudeness on a daily basis than could be explained by chance. However if I was in a workplace where the boss was a bully, there were a lot more rude people outside the workplace too, in my world.

Later, I found myself in an environment where I was getting complimented and highly praised all the time. Most startlingly, outside of that environment, people completely unconnected to it were throwing compliments all over me like confetti, wherever I went and whatever I did. This really made me take notice because, obviously, I was fabulous and it was nice that people were now recognising this, but nobody could be that fabulous. And I couldn't have changed so completely from zero to hero in such a short time.

I figured that it must be a "to her that has, shall more be given" kind of thing. When you're insulted, it brings you down and that shows to the kind of people who are looking for someone to kick *even if you're doing everything in your power to keep it hidden*. Likewise, if you're complimented, it pumps you up and you start sending out little particles of microfabulousness to the world.

Also, I had something happen a while back that changed the way I relate to people and made me more reserved. I didn't think it showed, but the CD from a photoshoot just came in the mail and I was a little shocked by the head shots of my resting face. At first glance, you don't see anything unusual, at second glance I clearly have bitchface. My half-smile, if you look again, is more like an arrogant smirkette. My eyes are just barely perceptibly asking if you feel lucky, punk? And that was me on a happy, happy day. It kind of cleared up the mystery of why I don't get any aggro on the street anymore, or anywhere, really, come to think of it. Also explains why I've been cast as a merciless droid type so frequently over the past year. Also query: what the hell did I look like when I *was* still in the angry phase? I must've had laser beams shooting out of my eyes.

So IF you're getting more aggression directed at you than most people, it could be that your anxiety is showing through in ways you're not aware of. HOWEVER the examples you give don't actually sound that unusual, so I actually would vote for confirmation bias in your case, pending information to the contrary.
posted by tel3path at 2:10 PM on August 4, 2012

Also Michele in California picks up on the eye contact thing.

When I was a kid I never used to look at anyone walking down the street if I could help it, because interaction of any kind was usually bad news for me. Then I read a magazine article about self-defence, and it claimed that some study showed that people who made eye contact with passing strangers for just a fraction of a second came off as assertive and therefore didn't get victimised. And remember, eye contact brings affiliation!

I thought this was worth a try so I practised the fraction of a second of eye contact in the mirror for a few days, then I went out into the world to put it into practice.

The first person I passed made some comment to the effect that I was ugly. This was something that happened at least once a day, though, so I pressed on.

The next person I passed made some comment to the effect that I was stupid. This was also something that happened at least once a day, but two insults in succession with the first two people I'd encountered that day? Just one of these two people couldn't have just walked by and kept their contempt to themselves? The second person couldn't have seen the first one so couldn't have been influenced by watching the encounter, either.

The third person, an older adult woman, rolled her eyes and tutted at me in disgust.

After three ugly encounters out of three, I just completely gave up eye contact as a bad job. To this day, I will not look at people if I can possibly avoid it. And as I just said, I haven't been picked on in quite a while now, for reasons apparently unrelated to this.
posted by tel3path at 2:28 PM on August 4, 2012

The thing with eye contact is that you glance at their face and then look away, not down. Try it with a friend some time - look at him/her then down, and then do it looking vaguely up and away. The difference in how you feel and how you are perceived is noticeable. (I have a wacky theory that this is the basis for the "up nod" as a greeting - lowering your eyes is a sign of submission, and nodding looks like that, but nodding up is more obviously acknowledgement of a peer.)
posted by restless_nomad at 3:00 PM on August 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm guessing that what we have here is a combination of circumstances and eye contact.

The incident on the bus, I'm going to call circumstances. In some places, buses are just super shady places. Even in cities where they're fairly common forms of transportation for working people, they're all too often just disgusting. A friend of mine had a man threaten to urinate on her on a bus in SF; another in Seattle had a homeless guy throw a piece of chicken at her.

The incident with the jogger, I'm going to call eye contact. In the small town where I grew up, eye contact with strangers was fine; you just had to say "good morning." But in bigger cities, eye contact with strangers is for weirdos and sexual come-ons. It's just not done. And if by accident you do it, by all means do not look down. You either look away or, if the person was normal looking, you can acknowledge the eye meeting VERY briefly with a microsecond half-smile of solidarity, like "oh, I guess I was looking in your direction, didn't mean anything by it, no harm no foul."
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:15 PM on August 4, 2012

Both of those things have happened to me. I think it's just part of life in a city--sometimes weird people bellow hostile shit at you, and sometimes you get splashed with other people's sodas or coffees or (horribile dictu) spit.

City life, man. It's like rats in a cage; sometimes people get hostile and aggressive and shit.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:35 PM on August 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, whoops, all three of those things have happened to me--I somehow missed the bellowing panhandler.

I think there may have been days in my life when all three of those things happened on the same day, with a side order of delightful street harassment.

Despite being a total cranky asshole, as you all know me to be here on MeFi, I look totally adorable in person; I'm a rosy-cheeked Betty Boop type. Random aggression is just everywhere in cities, is all.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:37 PM on August 4, 2012

Well, whatever it is (& I agree with the general consensus that it's likely to be confirmation bias), one thing that is surely true is that as soon as you become the victim of a random act of aggressive jackassery, everyone around you is thinking, "what an asshat" about your agressor, not about you. Consider the fact that within this post, a randomish group of mefites have responded with reports of having this happen to them, and none of us have written to report on or justify random acts of aggression against an utter stranger. No one deserves that, you don't deserve that, but you are in good company.
posted by dreamphone at 5:54 PM on August 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Maybe your social anxiety makes you more likely to remember and assign meaning to incidental interactions that most of us disregard or forget.
posted by desuetude at 6:47 PM on August 4, 2012

Agreeing with everyone who says that it's probably not you. Most of those instances are pretty innocuous. The kind of shit you described just happens, it probably has nothing to do with you. But just to be safe:

Watch your eye contact as has been mentioned.

Watch out that you're respecting other peoples' personal space as much as possible, especially on the bus or subway. For example, I have had people on the subway: step on me, sit down on my bag instead of waiting for me to move it, lean across my lap to talk to their friends instead of just moving, whack me in the face out of carelessness because they're gesticulaing while talking and the bus is crowded, take up more than their share of the seat so that we're touching, (and I don't mean just-barely touching, I mean pressed together), and swing their hair so that it hits me repeatedly or is rubbing against me for an entire subway ride. It's fucking irritating, especially when you're already irritated from being on transit, and I've certainly given all of these people some pretty vicious hate-stares and I've even deliberately elbowed some of these people. (Ahh! I know! I'm a terrible person!)

Make sure that you smell ok: freshly showered, deoderant-wearing, reapplying the deoderant at least once per day, fresh breath, maybe a little cologne but err on the side of too little. I have also given the vile hate stare of death to people in my vicinity who either stink of BO/ bad breath, or have enough scented product on to make me feel ill.
posted by windykites at 12:21 AM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

What can you do? Be compassionate. Maybe the person is schizophrenic, or has Tourette's syndrome, or just makes faces when they run, and turned to wipe sweat off their chin. Maybe they had a horrible day, or a vile childhood. Instead of wondering why they're picking on you, wonder how they got so angry, or what might cause them to act so oddly, and try to project calm.

Lots of people are jerks, or mentally ill, depressed, cranky, etc. Lots of scenarios can happen. I mis-aimed my windshield washer jet, with hilarious results. Assume good will, especially out in the world of random people, where you aren't going to see them again. Obviously, don't assume too much good will in a dark alley, but generally assume that people don't intend anything bad. Mostly, people just don't intend anything specifically at you. In your personal life and at work, assume good will, but listen hard. Most people with bad intent will reveal it. Most people don't have bad intent.

The world is more full of stupid than anything else. Always assume things are caused by stupid error, and you'll be right a heck of a lot.
posted by theora55 at 9:35 AM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is this something everyone experiences now and again, and the difference is that I'm not confident enough to be sure I'm not the problem; they are?

You're not the problem, they are. With regards to your jogger, maybe she caught your eye and thought you were staring at her? I've occasionally caught someone's eye accidentally and they've immediately scowled or rolled their eyes as if I were somehow making it into something personal.

As for your other incidents... I'm an ordinary looking early 40s woman and in the past couple of years I've had several similar experiences, including: one random angry guy snarling at me in the middle of a city street that he knows I like sticking things up my arse; one random angry woman on tram telling me to get fucked for no apparent reason; one panhandler absolutely screaming at me because I didn't give her any money; and a weird incident where a guy pretended to bump into me and then deliberately poured a large container of soft drink all down my back. I say "deliberately" because I changed my path twice so as to avoid him, but he changed his path right back so he was walking right at me. That was the one that upset me most, out of all of them, probably because it seemed so personal and deliberate and weird to have someone pour liquid all over you for no apparent reason. But it really was him being a random arsehole, not anything about me.

I think most people do experience this kind of thing every now and again, although they'll obviously happen more to people who spend a lot of time outdoors or in public places, particularly on public transport. There are plenty of angry, anti-social, or mentally ill people out there and many of them will just take it out on whoever's nearest. But you're not going to see them again, nor are you going to see any of the people who witnessed whatever incident it was, so the best thing you can do is not give such incidents any space in your brain or your life.
posted by andraste at 8:08 PM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've seen the random liquid thing happen a lot and have been sprayed myself -- it's water (or some other liquid, hopefully not poisonous) coming out of the A/C units.

I've been on several buses and trains when people have started shouting and accusing others of apparently spitting on them, and twice the driver has wearily explained that the A/C is busted or leaking. It happens on Muni trains when they get a bit of speed up.

So you can put that one down to mechanical snafus with no malicious intent from the universe!
posted by vickyverky at 3:06 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks for all the replies. I would say they have helped immensely but to be more accurate I will say that I think they will be immensely helpful. Getting from where I'm at to a healthier mindset is going to take some time.

These were just three examples of what seems like a fairly long-standing pattern of behaviour, but you've deconstructed the examples so thoroughly that I am starting to rethink the lot of it. I may have fallen into the jogger's unfortunate set of experiences of the day – maybe she'd been catcalled a half dozen times and suddenly just my noting her presence makes it seem likely that I may be the next. I don't know why I set that particular panhandler off moreso than others passing on the street but if it was something about me it probably wasn't rational. And the air conditioning. Of course. I feel stupid.

One possibility that just one person mentioned and I don't blame others for not doing so because it wasn't evident from the examples I provided – was anti-gay aggression. I'm heterosexual but seem to erroneously hit a lot of people's gaydar (another reason I am singularly unimpressed with people's confidence in their own book-by-cover intuitions), and while that can result in amusing or benign interactions, it's also been occasionally dangerous. Though that really wasn't what I was thinking about here, and it hasn't (unambiguously, at least) happened in a little while.

I'm very clean. I don't stare. In fact, I typically never make eye contact with anyone – something I probably need to fix since I probably miss out on a lot of harmless or beneficial social interaction, and that makes dealing with the social anxiety that much harder. I basically keep my head down and try to offend no one, so the “low status” observations also make some sense, if a portion of the aggression I see is actually the result of something I am doing that stands out.

The personal examples were very helpful, and honestly, I cannot imagine experiencing some of the things you have and not feeling certain that it wasn't about me. Whether that points more to my own anxious attributions or your resiliency I don't know, but I want more of what you've got, and I plan to work on it.

Too many answers on the nose I think to mark them “best”, but again, you have my thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:15 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

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