What would you have done?
June 12, 2017 7:53 AM   Subscribe

A middle-aged gentlemen with apparent car trouble approached me, a single woman on my way to work, for help. I declined, and now I'm wondering how I could could/should have handled the situation differently.

I'm a single woman driving to work around 7am-ish. There's a car at a stop sign pulled over with the hazards on, hood up. A middle-aged gentlemen walks out into the intersection as I approach. I slow down and roll down the window, and he asks If I can help him out. He didn't really seem to be in distress or anything, it sort of felt like he was selling me something rather than asking desperately for help. I kinda got the heeby-jeebies about the situation though, for reasons I can't really articulate well, so I declined & apologized, saying I'm in a hurry and that I can't help him. He got visibly upset, and yells "Oh, come on!!!" as I drive away.

I feel bad, because technically I probably could have helped, but I had to go with my gut which was telling me the situation felt a tiny bit off and seemed like it could go badly for me. But maybe the dude really just needed a little bit of help? This isn't a super busy intersection, but its not completely desolated either. Other people (who may or may not feel more or less vulnerable here) will be coming by every minute or so. His passenger was a male teenager I think, older rather than younger. In this land of prolific cell phones, I cant imagine neither had one. But I'm at work now and I'm still wondering if I handled this right? Maybe I could have volunteered to call the non-emergency line or something? What would you recommend for this situation?

Note that this is a suburb of urban Canada, maybe 30 min from downtown Vancouver. I'm not sure that changes anything, we do get crime and weirdos up here too. But I thought it was pertinent to mention anyway.
posted by cgg to Grab Bag (47 answers total)
You handled it fine. There was no immediate danger to anyone, it wasn't like you would be the only option in hours, and you didn't feel safe. Women feeling pressured to do things that make them feel unsafe because it's the "nice" thing to do is a Thing. You handled it fine. Don't feel bad.
posted by brainmouse at 7:57 AM on June 12 [147 favorites]

I would have done the same thing. As a woman you are completely entitled to nope out of any situation that makes your spidey senses tingle.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 7:59 AM on June 12 [51 favorites]

Imagine how much more aggression he'd have shown you if you'd hopped out of your car, walked over to his problem and then turned him down. Don't feel bad.
posted by turkeybrain at 8:00 AM on June 12 [11 favorites]

I think the only thing you could have done differently ("better") is said you were in a hurry but would call the police/tow truck to send assistance when you got to your destination. There is 100% nothing wrong with not stopping to help especially since it sounds like a simple no elicited a pretty disproportionately aggressive response.
posted by telegraph at 8:01 AM on June 12 [9 favorites]

I think the fact that he got visibly upset and yelled at you indicates your spidey sense was right on target.
posted by rainbowbrite at 8:02 AM on June 12 [153 favorites]

The fact that he didn't specify what help he needed is a big red flag. Had he asked you to dial 9-1-1, perhaps you could have done so but he sounds more creepy than anything. You did the right thing!
posted by Jamesonian at 8:02 AM on June 12 [20 favorites]

but I had to go with my gut which was telling me the situation felt a tiny bit off

Listen to your gut. You made the right call.
posted by bluecore at 8:05 AM on June 12 [14 favorites]

I would have done the same thing and I would probably have also felt bad about it, but I think you did the right thing. I'm not sure you could have handled it better, other than perhaps offering to call the police for him. His reaction sounds weird.
posted by frau_grubach at 8:09 AM on June 12 [6 favorites]

I kinda got the heeby-jeebies about the situation though

I think this is all the reason you need to exit swiftly from any situation with strangers. You have my permission to stop second-guessing yourself now.
posted by Cranialtorque at 8:16 AM on June 12 [21 favorites]

You are always okay to decline to help if nobody is hurt, even if they're parked in a dangerous place or whatever all you can do is call a tow truck, unless you happened to be driving one and didn't mention it. And unless you are a mechanic, what were you supposed to do anyway? He didn't have a specific request like jumper cables or a gas can or water - if that's what he'd needed, he would have immediately said so. That's pretty much all you can ask a passing motorist for, otherwise you need specialized assistance.

Given the aggressive response after you said no, I would have called the police after I left.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:18 AM on June 12 [12 favorites]

Yeah, I'm a middle-aged guy, and I probably wouldn't have stopped myself. Most basically, if you're anything like me, you truly are in a hurry. I generally arrive at work no more than three minutes before I'm supposed to be there. I don't really have a desire to see my supervisor's reaction if I told him I was late because I stopped to look under some rando's hood.

But there do seem to be some sketchy details. For one thing, the presence of a second person would really make me nervous. You're outnumbered. For another, why can't the passenger help him? Even if they somehow don't have phones, why can't he walk to a nearby gas station while the driver stays with the car? Finally, how much could you really have helped, honestly? Have you ever actually worked under the hood of a car? I sure as heck haven't. And even if you have, do you have tools you could use to fix whatever was wrong? If it's a situation that requires looking under the hood (i.e., not a flat tire or empty gas tank), there's very little you can do to fix the problem in the middle of the road. The car would almost certainly have to be towed to a mechanic. The most you could do is call the tow truck for him. I'm sure he can do that himself.

His reaction is ridiculous, and you should not feel bad.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:19 AM on June 12 [40 favorites]

Always go with your gut. As you said, it seems highly unlikely that neither of them had a functioning cell phone and reception in that not-desolate area; it definitely seems hinky to me, especially given his reaction. As Karen and Georgia of My Favorite Murder say, F*** politeness.
posted by Funeral march of an old jawbone at 8:21 AM on June 12 [16 favorites]

You were 100% right to not engage or help. Listen to your spidey-sense; it is picking up on little cues and telling you something isn't right.

If you want to, you could tell someone in the future that you can't stop, but you'll call and report their breakdown to the police.
posted by carrioncomfort at 8:21 AM on June 12

Yeah, the number of times I've been approached by panhandlers with some huge story about how their car is broken and they need money to call, or how they're out of gas and need a few bucks to get back home, or whatever, is very much non-zero. In some cases I've given them money, but as I've learned to ask a few questions first I've quickly gotten wind of the real game.

Yes, there are some people in this day and age who don't have cell phones, or who don't have enough extra cash or credit to fill their cars to get home or whatever, but it's totally your right to keep on going if you don't feel safe. It's not as if there's any shortage of other people around to ask for help, or any shortage of other options (like walking to a gas station).

You did fine.
posted by straw at 8:25 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]

I have a higher-than-average level of personal risk tolerance and I'm not sure I would have even rolled down my window for this dude.

You did just fine, don't feel bad for even a second.
posted by phunniemee at 8:28 AM on June 12 [11 favorites]

You did the right thing. I'm a dude and I've always been told to not personally assist strangers in that kind of automotive distress. Call the police.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:30 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]

It's really their responsibility to have breakdown cover, not to rely on women they don't know to get out of the car and help them.

If they didn't have breakdown cover they should still have called a garage.

If they didn't have a phone signal they should have walked to a house or store and asked to use the phone from there.

If they were driving in an isolated area with no cell phone coverage or human settlements within walking distance they should have had the ability to do their own car repairs.

And if they couldn't handle the car repair without help, they should have been able to tell you exactly what help they needed from you. They didn't.

I mean, they have to know how this might look from your point of view. They should've asked someone else.
posted by tel3path at 8:30 AM on June 12 [5 favorites]

Why would a man with car trouble flag down a lone woman for help anyway, on a reasonably busy road? Not to stereotype either sex, but a common assumption is that a woman is not likely to know much about cars, and while lots of men don't either, it is also a common assumption that a dude will maybe have jumper cables and know how to use them, or at least enough upper body strength to help you push your car to the gas station around the corner, or pull off a flat tire that is jammed or something.

So yeah, I think there was something off about this from the get-go.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:30 AM on June 12 [16 favorites]

You asked two separate questions here, and I agree with the consensus on the second (chronologically): "Did I handle this right?" Yes, you did.

As for the above-the-fold question "How could/should I have handled this differently?" I suppose you could have asked specifically what he wanted from you. It's likely what I would have done, but as others have said, I'm a man, and people don't tend to assume I'm vulnerable. As to what you should have done? Exactly what you did.
posted by dbx at 8:42 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]

Next time maybe don't roll down the window.

Right now I might call the police non-emergency line where this happened and report it, because you're right that there was something possibly suspicious. Two men without a cellphone to call roadside assistance? Really? Do men really expect a woman alone to stop for them? I don't think so.

The hostility was bizarre. You did great. You were not obligated to roll down the window, so put that in your back pocket.
posted by jbenben at 8:52 AM on June 12 [16 favorites]

I think you were right not to get out of your car and help. Listen to your gut.

I would have called the cops/911, though, too. If they need help, the cops can help, and if they're doing something nefarious, the cops can scare them off and keep anybody from getting hurt.
posted by rue72 at 8:57 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]

You should feel proud that you listened to your intuition! Trust that creepy feeling and it can guide you out of harm's way. It's really hard to overcome the social programming that Women Must Help, good on you!
posted by tatiana wishbone at 9:00 AM on June 12 [9 favorites]

Nthing that you did the right thing.

If men want to exist in a world where women will stop and help them, they need to work on a world where men don't rape women. Or murder, et cetera.
posted by Dashy at 9:10 AM on June 12 [34 favorites]

You handled this absolutely correctly. You should not do anything differently next time something like this happens and should not even feel obligated to crack your window to hear someone out when they run up to you at an intersection.
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:42 AM on June 12

Thanks all - definitely feel a little better now. I've had trouble trusting my gut recently (it's been tending to lean more to the paranoid side recently than it probably should for various reasons), so I appreciate the confirmation I didn't fail as a decent human being here!
posted by cgg at 9:43 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]

Why did this guy not have a phone? Why was he flagging you down? Why was he wanting you to get out of your car rather than make a call for him, like to the cops? Unless you're driving a tow truck, he's got no reason to think you'd be able to help him.

You did the right thing.
posted by bile and syntax at 9:43 AM on June 12 [7 favorites]

Not to cast specific aspersions on this specific guy, but I've been down a serial killer wikipedia hole the last few weeks and pretending to need help from women who are on their own is definitely in the playbook. Ted Bundy used to apply fake plaster casts and ask lone women to help him carry stuff to his car.

You made the right call. My theory with good samaritan stuff is that there is usually someone else who will stop to help even if I personally choose not to - if this guy was legit, chances are someone else will have helped him. If not, you passed up a situation that you felt weird about which had the potential to go badly. This is a fine outcome.
posted by terretu at 9:44 AM on June 12 [8 favorites]

Piling on with the congratulations: yes, you did the right thing! Keep listening to your gut, it won't steer you wrong! This is why people recommend The Gift of Fear.
posted by orrnyereg at 9:57 AM on June 12 [6 favorites]

"What would you have done?" isn't really a pertinent question. You aren't me. If I were in that situation—driving alone, not an isolated area, around 7 am—then yes, I probably would have stopped to see whether I could help. I spend a lot of time driving alone, and I often stop to help people. Occasionally I pick up hitchhikers.

But I'm a tall guy, and my demeanor is naturally intimidating (not always a great thing). And what I do when I'm alone is different from what I do when I have someone else in the car. I've also encountered people who need help when I've had a date or kids with me in the car, and I don't think twice about just continuing on my way. This isn't a wilderness where anybody is at risk of death, and I'm sure in another five or ten minutes somebody will drive along who's like me when I'm alone. Help will come.

Trusting your gut is crucial. Obviously your gut isn't some magical crystal ball, and hopefully you are developing your "gut" by constantly exposing yourself to new life experiences and broadening yourself—but at this moment, your present-tense gut is all you've got, and that's what you've gotta trust. Don't apologize for it. We all just do the best we can.
posted by cribcage at 10:01 AM on June 12 [6 favorites]

This made me think of My Favorite Murder and serial killers too.
As they say on that show, random guys don't need help from women or children. If he needed something specific, he should have been smart enough to ask you for exactly what he needed when you were kind enough to stop and roll your window down. That he didn't ask you for something directly tells me he was going to ask you for money, or he possibly had worse intentions. If you see him again, I think it would be worthwhile to note his license plate and report suspicious activity to the non-emergency police line.
posted by areaperson at 10:26 AM on June 12 [11 favorites]

One more vote here for you having done the right thing --- only thing I would have done differently is, not rolling down the window more than 2-3 inches: enough to talk but not enough to easily reach in.

And that's BEFORE noticing the presence of a second full-sized male --- my personal rules about stopping to help are, not if there are ANY males over about age 10-12, nor if any part of the situation is not fully visible at a quick glance (i.e., never for vans or other vehicles that might be hiding someone). Sorry if that makes me sound paranoid, but better safe than sorry.

Also, considering the prevalence of cellphones among teens and pretty much everyone under age 70, what COULD you have done that they couldn't have done for themselves?!?
posted by easily confused at 10:28 AM on June 12 [5 favorites]

You did the right thing - the situation definitely sounds off. If he really needed help he should have immediately said what he needed - for you to call a truck, lend him jumper cables, etc.

For your own peace of mind - in those situations where helping does not feel safe but you feel guilty about not helping, call the cops. If it's hinky they can check it out. If there's a genuine need for help they are better suited than you to sort it out.
posted by bunderful at 10:30 AM on June 12

Dude tried this on me (I'm a dude). Gave a long story about how he needed money or his car would be towed, and how any solution I proposed other than giving him cash wouldn't work. Reader, it was a con.
posted by zippy at 10:50 AM on June 12 [26 favorites]

I would have reacted as you did and I understand feeling guilty later, but I hope you don't. Here's some real stuff you picked up on that gave you that gut feeling in the moment.

-People in distress generally act and sound more distressed than what you describe. They might sound apologetic, scattered, frustrated, or even calmly resigned-- but not like they're making a sales pitch. Trust your evaluation of how he was acting and sounding.

-I can't imagine striding into an intersection, putting myself in danger and possibly blocking someone's way, can you? Unless this was life or death, which this wasn't. People who physically block you or impose themselves in your space are not to be trusted. Generally one flags people down from the side of the road, making oneself visible but not endangering anyone.

-People in need generally have specific requests.

-People generally do have cell phones. If the issue was that they had no phone, that would have been the specific request. Imagine you had no phone and needed to flag down a stranger in an emergency: wouldn't you have immediately explained your phone was out and that's why you had to flag them down?

-There were two of them. If for some reason neither of them could get help, that too would have been explained. ("I'm so sorry but my phone died and my coworker here can't walk/son doesn't know the area" or whatever.)

-The area was not deserted and they had their hazards on during the morning commute time-- presumably someone better equipped would come along very soon. Why you and not someone in a truck or something? If you felt targeted as a single woman I wouldn't discount that. Most men go out of their way not to make single women uncomfortable in these situations.

-His reaction to your no. Even if you were the only person for hours, and he was truly screwed, I feel like decent people in real need would have gone to "please can you just [call x] [give me a jump]" and never escalated to yelling "come on!!"

This is not an uncommon way to scam, by they way-- they ask for money for a tow and if you offered to call someone they would refuse.

Trust your instincts here, as they served you well today. And even if all of us are off base here, you didn't harm anybody. It's helpful to know that you're picking up on these things even though we're socialized to be helpful and compliant! I can tell you're a compassionate person (otherwise you wouldn't be asking this.)
posted by kapers at 10:53 AM on June 12 [19 favorites]

Yes, the only thing I would've done differently is called the police non-emergency line once I was clear.

Women are so socialized to downplay threats from men that, when your lizard brain does break through with a warning, you really should heed it.
posted by praemunire at 11:06 AM on June 12 [9 favorites]

He got visibly upset, and yells "Oh, come on!!!" as I drive away.

This is all the proof you need, you made the right choice. What an asshole.
posted by The Toad at 11:40 AM on June 12 [6 favorites]

I agree with others who say that women are socialized and often unfairly pressured to be nice, and therefore always deserve to be able to make judgement calls and enforce boundaries, particularly around men (who, on the flipside, are socialized to believe they're entitled to women's niceness).

To me, the only valid reason to interrogate the choice you made would be if you feel you were being unconsciously discriminatory to a person from a more marginalized demographic than your own- for instance:

If they were of a more persecuted racial group, had an accent, were visibly lower-income or street involved or mentally ill or disabled or queer or anything else like that.

It can get tricky because people from those groups can, like anyone else, be a source of danger, and it should always be ok to say no.

But also it's important to recognize societal patterns, which are that people from those groups often get turned down and abandoned and avoided more often, unfairly, and those moments cause harm, and the harm is cumulative.

So if in your gut, you feel that that kind of dynamic was at play, maybe spend a bit of time thinking about why and try to re-set your biases (here's an online test you can try).
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:37 PM on June 12

> in those situations where helping does not feel safe but you feel guilty about not helping, call the cops

Please don't call the cops on behalf of people from marginalized groups, people of colour, and in particular Black people, unless they explicitly ask you to.

The police don't have a great track record of helping some people and can sometimes charge in and incorrectly identify who the "bad guys" are.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:42 PM on June 12 [5 favorites]

>A middle-aged gentlemen walks out into the intersection as I approach. ..

Hell no, right there, for me.
posted by the Real Dan at 12:43 PM on June 12 [3 favorites]

Congratulations for not putting yourself at risk today. You did everything right.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 12:51 PM on June 12 [3 favorites]

Good lord.

BEST case he was going to try to con you out of money. (Happens all the time. "We just need money for bus fare / a tank of gas / &c.")

WORST case he was going to TedBundify you.

Thank goodness you kept going.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:11 PM on June 12 [5 favorites]

I agree with pseudostrabismus about not calling the cops on someone from a marginalized population unless they are actively trying to hurt you/someone else. Not just because they're weird/creepy/sketchy.

That said, this situation was sketchy and you were right to avoid it. As stated above, "Most men go out of their way not to make single women uncomfortable in these situations." I'm about the least threatening dude out there, but a random woman doesn't know that and so I try never to put one in a situation where she might feel she has to say yes. Unless you forgot to mention that they were in mortal danger (e.g. incoming tornado), as a woman you are under no obligation to help two apparently able-bodied men.
posted by AFABulous at 7:57 PM on June 12 [1 favorite]

This bears all the hallmarks of a pretty well-known scam. It generally follows the same pattern: "numerous reports of a man, who had popped the bonnet of his car and was asking drivers for fuel money." Here's a TV report on an example in Maryland, in which a police officer notes that "people become angry when they don't get money."

A variation on this is to be asked right at the gas pump, with some sort of sob story.

In general, never ever feel bad about listening to your gut.
posted by Miko at 8:03 PM on June 12 [2 favorites]

You may have saved your life. I too am a middle-aged woman, single, and I have a conscience and a desire to help. But I learned my lesson the hard way when I was a teenager walking home from school and a similar situation happened to me then, and I almost got kidnapped, raped, or whatever I don't even know because as soon as I got close to the car and I understood he was going to try to take me, I ran. And I never ever forgot that lesson. You did the right thing. It is so sad though to know that us women, in this day, still have to be like this. Very sad but you did the right thing . I think you very likely may have saved your own life. I guess the hard thing now is to deal with the feelings this brought up inside of you…?
posted by bananaskin at 11:08 PM on June 12 [1 favorite]

I was walking around a clubbing area of a city by myself at night and a guy (probably gay since I was in the gayberhood) asked to use my phone. I said it was dead. He was nice and understood and didn't continue to yell at me.
I feel a tad bad about it, but hey, if I'm a single woman out in public alone and a dude is looking for me, I don't necessarily feel comfortable handing over my phone in the dark of night on the street. I didn't particularly get the bad vibe in this situation and given where I was he might not have been That Kind Of Guy, but I'm still better safe than sorry not engaging in a dicey-ish situation. He hopefully found someone else to help that didn't have the issues I did.

I seriously think this dude wanted to harm you. Don't feel bad AT ALL.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:11 PM on June 12

I wouldn't have even slowed or rolled down the window so you were fine!
posted by agregoli at 11:26 AM on June 13

Seconding The Gift of Fear. OP (and everyone, really), you should read it!
posted by désoeuvrée at 12:22 AM on June 15

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