Good morning, plate of beans!
October 17, 2007 10:17 AM   Subscribe

(If you are male) Do women meet your gaze/say hello/acknowledge that you exist when you are out walking? This probably seems like a ridiculous question, but it's been bugging me for a long time.

To explain, I moved to a small town (votes conservative, lots of farmers, about a 40 minute drive to Toronto) over five years ago now. I really like it here overall, but I can't help noticing that, when I walk downtown, whether night or day, whether the streets are near-empty or bustling, most women here do not in any way, shape or form acknowledge me.

Men will say "good morning" or "hi" or whatever, or at least nod their head - but most women suddenly find the sidewalk or the opposite side of the street very interesting, and studiously avoid my eyes. Aside from having sideburns to my jawline, I don't think I look at all unusual or threatening. I've also been living here long enough to be 'known' here (I also work downtown).

I'm just trying to get a sense of whether this is my own neurotic observation, or do women in small towns actually do this as a matter of course? Of course it's not all women, but I'd guess about 80-90%. And yes, I do say hello or try & engage people (it's a very friendly town overall & I love the way folks will generally greet each other).

FWIW this phenomenon isn't nearly so bad in my immediate neighbourhood, so it may just be a matter of familiarity. Still, I don't want to be an old man before I get a hello. I'm looking for any input here, from males or females.
posted by stinkycheese to Human Relations (81 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I grew up in a small town and I was taught to always, always, always, acknowledge someone's goodwill. I was also taught that if the other person isn't making the gesture (head nod, smile, "Good morning," etc.) then I was to make the first move.

I don't know what's going on in your town in particular, and being from the States I don't know if there's a cultural difference between US small town and Canadian small towns.
posted by cooker girl at 10:21 AM on October 17, 2007

Smile more.

I don't know that you aren't, but most people return smiles almost automatically.
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:24 AM on October 17, 2007

As a sign of propriety, in conservative cultures, women bow their heads and avert their eyes when passing men. This can be local cultures, and doesn't have to be China.

From my experience, meeting a strange man's eyes can result in aggressive attention that an acknowledgment may not necessarily demand.

Consider that looking a stranger in the eye when you are not having an interaction with them is (on an instinctual level) a fairly aggressive thing to do, and not doing so may be more a sign of passive behavior in local females than that your sideburns are getting too long.

If you'd like to open the door to more interaction, you can be "friendly man," who says, "Good morning" (or afternoon/evening) when you come into close proximity with someone else, man or woman. If you see them again, they'll know its coming and won't be caught off guard. If you don't see them again and they thought you were a weirdo, so what.

Where I am from, women do not acknowledge strange men they pass in the streets. Where I live now, everyone acknowledges everyone. When I go back, I'm going to subject everyone else to my perpetual greetings, whether they like it or not.

You should too.
posted by letahl at 10:24 AM on October 17, 2007 [5 favorites]

Generally, women don't go out of their way to make contact with unknown men on the street, and they react neutrally (at best) when an unknown man makes contact.
Your search for a friendly "hello" probably looks like annoying harassment to her.

If you want to get to know the locals, try hanging out someplace where you'll start to become familiar as a neighbor -- cafes, bars, parks, grocery stores etc.
posted by footnote at 10:25 AM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

I meet the eyes of men and women alike when I'm in a good mood and feeling outgoing; I look at other things when I don't want to interact or am thinking about something.

It might seem this behavior is about fear of unknown men or safety, but in fact, one of the strategies women are often taught to lower the likelihood that they'll be confronted in an unwelcome way is to make brief but definite eye contact with all the men you pass. Apparently this shows you're confident, aware of your surroundings, and taking note of people's descriptions.

Did you move to this town from another region entirely? I've lived in the north and south, coastal and inland, urban and suburban, and the greeting-on-the-street behavior goes by different rules everywhere. People where I grew up (near NYC) are more generally wary (or weary) of other people and don't act very gregarious on the street. People where I live now (small Northern New England city) are very friendly on the street. People in my former wealthy and haughty neighborhood in Connecticut were very standoffish.
posted by Miko at 10:25 AM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've never lived anywhere that people generally acknowledge one another on the street. Maybe it's a northeast US thing. However, when people do acknowledge me on the street I believe that it tends to be a woman who will do it. In fact, I got a smile from one this morning.
posted by backseatpilot at 10:26 AM on October 17, 2007

I'm female and just not inclined to nod "hello" to everyone who passes by. I'll make the effort in my office (or other places where I have somewhat of a connection to the people there) because I work with these nice folks, but when I'm out and about, I'm likely going somewhere with a purpose and can't be bothered to slow down and smile at everyone in Atlanta who happens to be in the same area I am...
posted by at 10:32 AM on October 17, 2007

Response by poster: I moved here from Toronto, but I grew up in Oshawa (which, while not a small town, is certainly not a big city either). I work downtown, at the public library, and I have two children, so I'd wager that I'm perceived as a 'nice' or 'safe' man. I'm out and about downtown all the time.

And yes, I do attempt interaction - as cooker girl suggested above, it's considered good manners here to greet people. It's something I love after so many years in Toronto where someone would have to be rolling around on fire before you'd even glance at them.

As I said, with men there's always some acknowledgement, even if it's the slightest nod. But the majority of women here freeze me out, like I'm invisible. It's really bizarre to me, even after all these years.
posted by stinkycheese at 10:35 AM on October 17, 2007

From my own experience, more than a few men take any eye contact or interaction as a sign that a woman is interested. I find it frustrating that I can't just walk down the street and be pleasant to everyone without being guarded, but then again I find it frustrating not to be able to go jogging after dark or walk into a bar alone and not get hassled, or any number of things that men enjoy/take for granted. So for me, looking away is simply an avoidance technique. It's just not worth the aggravation.
posted by iconomy at 10:36 AM on October 17, 2007 [14 favorites]

I don't meet the eyes of men* I don't know on the street because when I do this, the incidence of these men stopping me and asking me if I'd like to maybe find someplace to have sex goes up by about 8000%.

I'm a very polite girl, but as a woman, I walk through the world differently than a man does. I suggest you cut these women a little slack.

*Exceptions: men who look to be under 14 or over 50, men who are with a woman, men who are with a child, men who are walking certain kinds of dogs, men who I've seen around and about my neighborhood before.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 10:36 AM on October 17, 2007 [6 favorites]

thehmsbeagle, where on earth do you live?
posted by Miko at 10:44 AM on October 17, 2007

Yeah, sorry men trying to make eye contact on the street, but no: not gonna happen, at least from me. Maybe it's because I live in frat-boy populated neighborhood but I get enough unwanted, crass attention as it is. I just want to walk down the street and get to point B.
posted by gsh at 10:47 AM on October 17, 2007

How are you interacting? Are you staring and smiling at them the whole time you are approaching them? That can seem a bit too much to some people, especially women (see thehmsbeagle's comment). For a complete stranger, especially a female one, a quick look, smile and hello just as you are about to pass is less threatening.
posted by caddis at 10:50 AM on October 17, 2007

I acknowledge men I see on the street. I smile, I say hello, whatever. I treat men as I would anybody else out there. I don't assume that they want to screw me, rape me, or steal my bag. I tend to just think that they're heading to some destination opposite mine, and since I'm facing them, it'd be much nicer to exchange smiles than scowls. I guess I'm just friendly. And I refuse to play the defensive scared woman on the street.

Plus, if we ain't friendly to each other, how the heck will we all get it together?

My advice to you, stinky cheese, keep trying to change that status quo in your small town. Use friendliness and smiles.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:51 AM on October 17, 2007

stinkycheese, same here. I'm a friendly, outgoing guy, and look for interaction when I'm out walking around. I spend an hour or so walking to and from work, and I seek to meet the eyes of and say hello to just about everyone I pass--at least a hundred or so folks a week, I'd say. Not all men return my gaze, but almost no women do. All of this is to say--it ain't just you.

I'm over a foot taller than the average woman, and half-a-foot taller than the average man--wonder if that has any effect?
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:59 AM on October 17, 2007

I rarely receive any indication that I exist from women on the street. I assume this is because I'm decidedly unattractive and expect other men have had different experiences.
posted by null terminated at 10:59 AM on October 17, 2007

I'm with iamkimiam. It's important to me to refuse to act like a victim, especially before anything's even been done to me. I pretty much glance at everybody unless, as I said above, I'm feeling down or I'm preoccupied. I can think of maybe two uncomfortable incidents out a lifetime of walking around on the street, and many hundreds of pleasant interactions that gave us both (probably) a little lift and a break in the day's monotony.

When I was more insecure, I'd wait to see how other people on the street greeted me before greeting them. It took me a while to realize that I could initiate a greeting, too, and that if they didn't respond in kind, that was on them, not on me. I've decided I want my general approach to life to be face-forward, chin up, eyes ahead, and taking note of what's going on around me. Not only do I think it's friendlier, I think it's safer, as I noted above. I see what's going on, and don't walk in fear.
posted by Miko at 10:59 AM on October 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

In my experience when someone makes eye contact and smiles at me on the street, it is often quickly followed by very unwelcome conversation. So if I don't make eye contact, I can usually avoid those remarks/attempt at conversation. Sorry to all you perfectly nice guys who just want to be polite-- I'm not trying to be rude, I just don't know for sure if you are nice of if you are going to harrass me.

Although I have to say that I feel much more comfortable making eye contact with strangers in small towns so it is odd that you would be having a sort of opposite experience.
posted by ohio at 11:01 AM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

I noticed a very sharp decline in the acknowledgments of female strangers on sidewalks when I moved from the southern U.S. to the northeast.

That said, on the street where I live in New Jersey, people usually sit on their porches in the afternoons on days of temperate weather, and if you're walking down the sidewalk it's unforgivably rude not to greet every single person on a porch as you pass. This holds even if it involves shouting across to the other side of the street. If the person on the porch is on your side of the street, you'll probably have to stop and talk. So I usually have to schedule time for this when leaving for an appointment on foot.

A couple of months ago, a couple started renting a house on my street, and I saw them walk by a porch without greeting its occupant, even after he'd said hello--after they'd gotten about ten feet past him he yelled, "Oh, you two must be a couple of foreigners."
posted by Prospero at 11:02 AM on October 17, 2007

I second thehmsbeagle and gsh. I live in Brooklyn. There are too many guys out there who think any kind of acknowledgment means "let's chat and wind up in bed together." To be fair, I've encountered them all over the world.
posted by infinityjinx at 11:03 AM on October 17, 2007

Response by poster: I'm really glad this question has been taken with the spirit intended - I'm not trying to stigmatize anyone here, or be silly about it. I am truly interested in why this happens. To answer some points:

I'm not smiling and staring the whole time I approach someone, no. I work with the public for much of my day so I'd say I'm fairly good at making people feel comfortable and not giving out a creepy vibe (though my wife might disagree, ha ha).

I really don't think it's about the whole 'picking up' thing, although I can certainly understand why women might not want to interact on the street because of that concern. The reason I say this is that, where I live at least, this skews upward with age. Which is to say, the older the ladies are, the less likely they are to say hi or whatever.

Now, maybe these are older ladies who just got used to freezing out the men b/c of the creep concern, and found it's a habit that works for them, and see no reason to change. But women under 40 say are actually more friendly in general than the women over 40.
posted by stinkycheese at 11:05 AM on October 17, 2007

These people who don't have the time or inclination to acknowledge other people... wow, that's incredibly depressing.

I'll always acknowledge any person who I happen to make eye contact with. To do otherwise is extremely rude imo. Obviously it's a cultural thing and people over here tend to be very friendly, community is still pretty important.

I've worked in the same town for about 8 years and there's people who I've walked past every day. We started off nodding to one another, then smiling or a quick "hi". I've no idea who these people are and I've no intenton of being mates with any of them.

But it's important to be human, you know? We are social beings.

What pisses me off is when you smile at a child and the parents give you death stares. What kind of way is that to bring up a child.

So yeah, carry on being the way you are (assuming you aren't some sort of scary freak who is staring people out, trying to make eye contact!)
posted by twistedonion at 11:05 AM on October 17, 2007

I live in Los Angeles. But I would, and have, act(-ed) this way in other cities, because I have been street harassed in every city I've ever lived in or visited. Not looking at strange men reduces the odds of this happening, but doesn't make it stop completely.

And thanks, but I don't assume anything, not that all men are terrible, not that I'm a victim, not that I need to be scared.

I have simply learned, through extensive experience, that to a certain type of man, a woman's polite smile/nod/eye contact reads as powerful sexual interest. And since those men unfortunately don't wear buttons reading "Make eye contact at your peril!" all strange men get the same treatment.

I'm sorry that sucks for the vast majority of men who are nice and friendly and just trying to nod hello, but the potential hassle of getting followed around by someone who's creepy and will not go away is not worth it. Sorry guys.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 11:12 AM on October 17, 2007

Thirding thehmsbeagle and gsh, down to the criteria (though I am not picky about dog breeds).

When I make eye contact with men, they hold it too long for my comfort. Women do not.
posted by unknowncommand at 11:14 AM on October 17, 2007

Yeah, agreed with the above. Walking down the street, you only have a couple seconds, usually, to evaluate the situation, and as it can be hard to distinguish immediately between "leer" and "friendly smile", I and other women tend to err on the side of caution and avoid eye contact with most men.

I agree that it sucks, and I wish the world were otherwise, but it's not, and street harassment really sucks. Sorry not to be able to offer any concrete advice, other than don't take it personally when your friendly smile or hello is rebuffed.
posted by ITheCosmos at 11:16 AM on October 17, 2007

I'd say perhaps you should consider going out of your way to say hello to the women you pass daily. In time, someone's bound to realize you're not dangerous and respond with a friendly "Hi!"
posted by MaxK at 11:17 AM on October 17, 2007

I don't really greet too many people on the street. But I'm a native New Yorker. Sometimes I will, but this is more likely to happen with children or people who have pets.

I suppose I'm a bit less open to greeting/meeting the gaze of men than women, for reasons others have stated. On several occasions, being friendly or appearing receptive led to a few men actually following me for a while or waiting for me in the stores I was shopping at. I don't walk around with a victim mentality, but I can't say that being followed on your way home is pleasant.

However, when I've been in different places - my great grandma's house in southern NJ, or with my relatives outside Atlanta, or in a few European cities, including time spent living in Madrid, I've been more open to this sort of thing.
posted by cmgonzalez at 11:21 AM on October 17, 2007

I find this question somewhat bizarre, in that I can't imagine any place within 40 minutes of Toronto where one would expect regular acknowledgements from passing strangers on the sidewalk. Seems like either you live in a reasonably sized metropolis (say, Hamilton), where standard protocol is generally not to acknowledge a stranger's presence unless they're asking for directions or help; or some form of suburban sprawl where no one actually uses the sidewalks except scaredy-cat bicyclists. And I say this as someone who lives in the 905.

All this is basically to say that I highly doubt it's you. More than likely it's the territory.
posted by chrominance at 11:32 AM on October 17, 2007

Response by poster: chrominance: Not the suburbs, not Hamilton. Maybe I just drive fast when I have to get to Toronto, I don't know.

I'm not trying to play a guessing game here, I just really would rather not state the name of the place I live online. For all kinds of reasons. Believe me, it's smalltown-y. They even shoot feature films here sometimes when they want that 'smalltown' look.

That said, it looks to me, based on what I'm seeing here, like we can chalk this phenomenon up to being another bad side-effect of the male sex drive. That is depressing.
posted by stinkycheese at 11:42 AM on October 17, 2007

I'm, in a small town too, and I say hello/smile at pretty much everyone I walk by. The only people that don't always respond are teenage males, I think because they are rarely greeted like adults by other adults and don't expect it. I've never been harrassed by a man I was friendly with - even when living in big cities (I greeted most people there too). If I do not acknowledge a person I am passing on the street it is probably because I am keeping an eye on my children. Wasn't there a book written a few years ago about a guy that wore a "Hello, my name ...." sticker in order to strick up conversations with strangers? (That search string is proving impossible to google). What about wearing your name tag?
posted by saucysault at 11:48 AM on October 17, 2007

Well i'm guessing that any place "40 minutes" out of Toronto is going to be predominantly White. Are you White?
posted by chunking express at 11:49 AM on October 17, 2007

I usually don't make eye contact with strangers unless I have reason to. It doesn't have to be an important or compelling reason, just some reason. They're with a cute child or dog, I like their outfit, they make a point of making it easier for me to pass and I say thanks, a commiserating look if we're both encountering the same annoyance. Things like that. Otherwise I keep to myself, not so much for safety concerns or to avoid come-ons but more just to mind my own business.

But I live in New York, the world capital of minding-your-own-damn-business. And I'm from New England, the world capital of stuck-up-girls-who-can't-even-be-bothered-to-say-hi-god-what-a-bitch.

I was so surprised the first time I visited the South (the true South, as opposed to DC and Florida, where I'd been many times), every single person I passed said hello. Everyone! I understood for the first time why Southerners thought New Yorkers were rude. It's just a different way of being polite--reaching out vs. trying not to bother people.

I do notice, here in New York, when I'm not wearing my headphones I have to do a lot of ignoring of cat calls and animal noises from men on the street. Really, you'd be surprised. I don't feel that my safety rides on how I respond to these guys, but I'm just not going to feel badly about not having smiled at them and said hello.
posted by lampoil at 11:52 AM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: chungking express: FWIW I am white. And yes, it is predominantly white here. But, as you suggest, that could be said of almost anywhere outside Toronto.
posted by stinkycheese at 11:55 AM on October 17, 2007

I'd add that I live in Toronto, and depending on how busy the street i'm on is, and what time of the day it is, i'll say hey to people I pass on the street. I usually get ignored by everyone.
posted by chunking express at 11:55 AM on October 17, 2007

I think eye contact out of either gender may be too much to hope for -- between men, it's liable to be regarded as challenging (though nods or grunts are okay). I'd just smile or act friendly in a very low-key way -- greeting a woman too directly is liable to be misconstrued -- and assume a low response rate. Nothing personal.

Another strategy: wear a cast or a special shoe signaling a disability. It will drive the gaze upward, and you will smile beatifically.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 12:01 PM on October 17, 2007

To me, having sideburns down to your jawline = letting your freak flag fly.
posted by jayder at 12:05 PM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Sadly, one major factor in my usually not acknowledging men who greet me on the street is that about 1 out of every 10 times, the man in question is trying to get my attention so that he can grunt/leer/masturbate at me.

I wish it weren't so, but after the 800th time a guy says hello to you and you look over and he's grabbing his crotch and making animal sounds, you just quit responding to friendliness from strangers.
posted by lemuria at 12:17 PM on October 17, 2007

I'm, in a small town too, and I say hello/smile at pretty much everyone I walk by.

Me too where small town = 2200 people. And I have the same reactions w/r/t teenage boys, everyone else says hi back. If I'm in a bigger city I usually adjust this to a casual look/smille/nod/eyes down just in case I seem too much like a grinning feeb.
posted by jessamyn at 12:21 PM on October 17, 2007

I am a big guy with facial hair and a deep(ish) voice. Sometimes I work in my yard or walk down the street in less than clean condition. My neighborhood is next to a large greenbelt and the streets are the parking lot.

Invariably I say "Hi" to everyone; male, female, singles, groups or dog walkers. I realize this might make some people uncomfortable, but I am not going to let that keep me from being friendly.

So my strategy? Say "Hi", "Good day", "Good Afternoon", "Good evening" or even the occasional, regionally appropriate "Howdy" with a friendly tone in a voice well above my threatening grumble. Form my face into a half smile, so I can show friendliness, but it doesn't look like they are the highlight of my day. Glance in their general direction, but don't make eye contact if they seem uncomfortable. Make sure that my attention is obviously short-lived and neutral and only directed at the face.

I am threatening to many people by virtue of what I look like. I don't like this, but I will not begrudge anyone their sense of personal safety. Sometimes I receive a belated "Hello". Sometimes a person asks for directions or initiates a conversation because of my behavior.

Say "Hi" and let it go. Eventually you will probably get better reception (or be treated like the freak you really are, how am I to know?).
posted by Seamus at 12:27 PM on October 17, 2007

Women quickly learn that eye contact with men, and especially smiles, often leads to unwanted attention or interactions. Most normal, sane, friendly guys do *not* overinterpret general goodwill. However, there are some men who seem to think that because you look at them, you want to sleep with them, and it tends to ruin it for the rest of you.
posted by frumious bandersnatch at 12:27 PM on October 17, 2007

Just yesterday I was discussing with a coworker how tripped up I was upon moving to Atlanta from Boston and being talked to in elevators. That's pretty much just not done in New England. Down here on the other hand people say hi to me on the street, in the store and especially in elevators. I was accustomed to stepping in, hitting my floor and then silently contemplating the door or the back of the head of the person in front of me. Now I'm accustomed to almost every person saying "hello" as they enter and "have a nice day" or some such as they leave. It actually left me tongue tied the first time it happened. I didn't know how to respond to a simple polite gesture.

The same goes for eye contact. I am much more likely to make eye contact with a strange male here than I am back in New England. I've found that when I'm back home in Boston I almost immediately snap back to eyes down, minding my own business will you please leave me alone. I haven't yet figured out if that's a good thing...
posted by Constant Reader at 12:49 PM on October 17, 2007

I suspect one reason that younger women are more likely to return your greeting is that they have had fewer experiences of strange men taking this sort of thing the wrong way. The results of this can range from unwanted verbal invitations to being followed.

I tend to say hi to men and women when I'm walking in my own neighborhood, and I've never had any problems. In a previous neighborhood, I wasn't as friendly (neither was the neighborhood), but would usually nod at people in passing. I don't tend to nod at or say hello to people downtown. Most of the "greetings" I hear from men downtown tend to be the sort of observations that polite people don't utter as greetings. Saying hi to strange men results in hearing more of these in a day.
posted by yohko at 12:49 PM on October 17, 2007

This question reminds me of the American coverage of the recent big tsunami where whatever million people died and all the footage was of American and European tourists schlepping their wheeled luggage up the muddy flooded streets, their vacations ruined. Those American journos were on the ball. They did their jobs and ferreted out the sad part.

Or when Bush the first went to the supermarket that time and was astounded by the magic eye technology that had been in place for two decades but he had no idea because he'd never had to undergo the agony of shopping at a supermarket before because he's royalty.

Why do the privelaged among us have such trouble imagining how the world looks from the subaltern perspective?

Obviously something about the social mores your new, conservative town makes the women in it feel too cowed to look men in the face. The tragic part of that is how it affects you: if you stay there you're gonna be an old man before you get a hello on the street. Quelle do-goddamn-mage.

Did a complete stranger ever slap your ass just 'cause they noticed it walking down the street? When that happens more than once--and not just at Mardi Gras, I'm saying--and (and this is a key distinction) when strangers who walk up to you or yell from cars to communicate some version of the message, "YIPE YARP YAP BEND OVER" are bigger than you are and represent a possible threat, then it might be clearer why someone in a demographic specifically targeted for sexual aggression would take steps not to attract notice from someone in the demographic doing the targeting. I suppose a few men will chuckle indulgently and make the funny joke that they wouldn't mind at all if strange women went around routinely barking and slapping ass. See, but the fantasy situation is not comparable to the real one. In the fantasy situation the women all inevitably look like Salma Hayak, but in real life the men who do this shit look like everyman--it's not like you can pick your harrassers from the pool of people of whom you'd say, "I'd hit it." He may look like a Henry Lee Lucas nightmare or he may be the sweetfaced boy next door, you don't know.

The fantasy version is also not comparable because women aren't potential rapists of men in the numbers that men are potential rapists of women. So a friendly "hello!" from a woman that leads seamlessly into "You got a minute for me to peg that ass?" could be considered a harmless compliment. Even some more direct physical communication such as a crotch grab, while it might be extremely unwelcome, would not come freighted with extra bucketloads of fear. The main thing, though, is that this kind of public behavior from anyone, women or men, is uncommon in the life experiences of men who live outside of prison. Whereas a whole power of women if they think back long enough will remember a crotchgrab or more than one. Don't be a dubyadaddy: use your brain. Imagine how you'd behave if you'd been dealing with this kind of shit your whole life since before you got your full growth and from people bigger than you or powerfully creepy. Or imagine how it would be if you were a kindof little guy new to cellblock D. Or read some Joyce Carol Oates or Jayne Ann Phillips. Or just, I don't know, look around sometime, dang.
posted by Don Pepino at 12:57 PM on October 17, 2007 [7 favorites]

So it sounds to me like the biggest variable is not gender but locality. What works fine for women in one location may not work well for them in another place.

And if you're somewhere where women are unfriendly on the street, some of that behavior could come from concern about possible inappropriate interactions, and some from regional culture differences (American south vs. north being a good example).

It's true that sometimes men assume you're flirting if you hold their eyes too long. But even if I'm not going to be friendly, I look at most people as they pass, enough to get a sense of who they are. For some reason it gives me a lot of security to know that people know I've taken in their appearance and have a bit of a read on them.

I enjoy saying hi to teenage boys in my town. They so don't expect it.
posted by Miko at 1:00 PM on October 17, 2007

i am a 27 year old female in a large city. i do not look men in the eye when walking down the sidewalk because it invites harrassment/asking for money/mockery/unwelcome comments.

i do not smile at strangers on the street for the same reason.

eye contact between men and women is generally assumed to mean that there is interest. i don't want to encourage that.

i'd say that most women don't meet your eyes because they don't want to give you an "in" to talking to them and bothering them.

i'm antisocial and generally dislike people. i don't want to be bothered getting into a conversation, and i don't want to hear the sexual comments or the derogatory comments. so, i may be outside the norm.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 1:28 PM on October 17, 2007

I'm 40 and not worried about leers. I just don't want to make conversation. I live in Smalltown, Australia, and if I smile at someone, they will probably want to engage me in a long and boring conversation about their dog or their child or some such. I kind of figured that because I'm 40 and a woman, I'm fair game, because I'm obviously motherly. In fact, on Monday, in the shops, an old man (he told me he was 84) started chatting to me about how green the vegetables were, despite the drought, and I was good, I acknowledged what he said with a smile and some small talk. Big mistake, next thing I know he's telling me all the young men today are poofs and they need to sit down to pee. WTF!?!

Nope, I'm going to keep my head down and not see anyone smiling. It's easier not to start a conversation like that than to extricate yourself from one.
posted by b33j at 1:44 PM on October 17, 2007

Just backing up what other women have said about not wanting undesirable attention. I do want to be friendly on the street, I do. But every time I give it another go within fifteen minutes of walking and smiling at people who pass I get a skeevy dude who starts following me and asking for my phone number. I mean skeevy. I have had more than one guy assure me that "he can share" when he hears I have a boyfriend. And I am sorry to say thehmsbeagle, but you can't even be sure of the men with children--one guy picked up his toddler and followed me (at least he didn't leave the kid there). It's not that I'm a Helen of Troy, there just happen to be a few too many men who just emerged from their caves.
posted by Anonymous at 2:05 PM on October 17, 2007

I'm female, and I went through a phase in college where I tried to make eye contact with everyone I passed. The men usually met my gaze and gave a "hi" or a small nod of acknowledgement, and the women almost always looked down immediately. So it's likely not your looks or your gender. It's just how most women have learned to react.

If you do want to get a "hi" out of someone, you'll probably get more success in line at the grocery store or the post office, rather than walking down the street. People on the street are often preoccupied with their own thoughts or where they're going, and an unexpected greeting from a stranger can sometimes jostle them out of that groove.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:12 PM on October 17, 2007

What Don Pepino said.

It's not about "the male sex drive." It's about a culture in which I'm reasonably certain that if I make eye contact on the street with random men, at least one of them is likely to harass me and refuse to take "no" for any sort of answer, and in which other random passing men are pretty damned unlikely to stop and try to help me when such a thing happens, and in which, if I am actually assaulted, newspapers, acquaintances, and the majority of people on the internet will say it's my fault because what the hell was I doing talking to strange men on the street anyway?

You want women to be more comfortable smiling at men on the street? Start telling off the guys who harass us. (And if you're not comfortable standing up to these guys on a regular basis, then bingo!, you've figured out why we're too demoralized to make the effort, either.)
posted by occhiblu at 2:31 PM on October 17, 2007 [7 favorites]

I'm female and live in the 'burbs. Whether or not I smile/nod at some guy coming up the street towards me who's clearly looking like he wants to smile/nod at me when he gets a little closer is judged on a case-by-case basis. If he gives off bad vibes or looks like he's looking for a bit too much attention, I'll ignore, or change my path if possible. If the guy seems fairly harmless, I'll go with it. I don't run into trouble much, thank goodness. But if I was in the city? HELL NO, I wouldn't do it.

I will say that guys over 50 who are not that likely to be hitting on me (I look like I'm 15, so I shudder to think why an over-50 wants in my pants) will get a response more often than everyone else, comparatively speaking. But occasionally, I'll get unpleasantly surprised.

Don't take it personally, and don't expect responses from women. They don't all know if you're a creep or not, and are just trying to protect themselves.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:39 PM on October 17, 2007

You want women to be more comfortable smiling at men on the street? Start telling off the guys who harass us.

This is an important point. What I'm realizing from this conversation is how entirely dependent the harrassment problem is - and thus, the related stay-away vibe - on community standards.

Where I live today, street harassment is emphatically not a problem, and people take note of one another. The culture here would generally reject leering, aggressive behavior, for the most part. Exceptions: yeah, late Friday night at the office frat-boy bars. But even then it doesn't get to me that much. Those guys are assholes, and they're drunk, and when I pass them my face is impassive and my eyes meet theirs and then slide neutrally along, no other facial reaction. Of course, I'm older now and not their target harrassment market anyway.

But that's beside the point. In general, catcalling and crotch-grabbing just does not fly here. It's beyond the pale. If someone were trying it on the street, a business owner or bench-warming coffee drinker or passing individual would stop and say something about it to the jerk in question. If that didn't clinch it, more people would get involved, and eventually the police would be called if it continued to escalate. But in general, overt harrassment isn't tolerated. Our town has a great pedestrian feel and is lively on the streets until midnight most weekends. Families, women, and children are out and about at all hours, lingering. Teenagers stand at the bus stop and flirt and freestyle, while cafe people sit at tables across the way, and couples walk dogs, and buskers play banjos and all that.

Part of it might be a question of scale. This is a small city, so even if all the early 20s loud guys who want to be jerks to women all get together, there aren't that many of them. They form a loud, annoying group, but not a culture or a constant presence. They circulate around a couple of establishments and don't 'take over' any one corner or street. The street is used by most sectors of the community comfortable. The town is also very age-diverse. Children up through people in their 80s are everywhere.

I do think harassment of women scares women away from being friendly on the street. But I see the problem as honestly one of culture, urban design, and community standards than solely determined by gender. Women don't have to deal with harassment everywhere they go, and if you live in a place where I live, you can drop those defenses comfortably and have relaxed street interactions. The overall level of fear is much lower than in some other places I've lived. But I think this comes down to having the kinds of communities we choose. But one person can't do it alone - if you live where people are preying on lone female walkers, then standing up to those people as one lone female walker is probably going to be unproductive. It takes greater resistance than that, and it takes criticism coming at that behavior from unexpected quarters - other men, peers, bosses with the power to hire and fire, neutral figures - to reduce or eliminate the harrassment. And not every community has the population or resources to mount that sort of campaign. But in places like my town, where you start out ahead by virtue of scale and good urban planning, it's not hard to keep things appropriate and quite friendly.

Recently I did a personal project of being the 'smiler' and smiling at every single person I met; it was an enlightening and lovely experience.
posted by Miko at 3:01 PM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Interesting thread. When I lived in sketchy West Oakland, I made eye contact and nodded (minimum) at everyone I passed. Neighbors on their front porches said "howya doin'" every time I walked by. The only people that ever harassed me were drunk bums (bum: whatsa matter, baby, you don't like black guys? me: I don't like DRUNK BUMS!) and teenage boys (who would actually just pretend to run me over with whatever wheeled machine they were in possession of).

Now I live in a nicer, denser part of Oakland, and I don't make eye contact nearly as much. I'm not sure why. Maybe because I pass more people, and it seems more overwhelming. I always say hi to people that say it to me, though.
Maybe I'll go back to my old ways and see how it goes.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:30 PM on October 17, 2007

Is your town small enough for everyone to 'kind of' know everyone else? If so, it's possible that you aren't being acknowledged because of the possibility of gossip. "Did you see Myrna talkin' to that new funny looking guy?" The women closer to home probably know more about you than the ones downtown and thus are more likely to speak.
posted by elle.jeezy at 6:04 PM on October 17, 2007

I walk a lot, and I see a lot of people. It seems to be that the standard rule is to generally avoid other people's gaze, but you can normally gauge from a distance if someone wants to return a gaze or be left alone.

From my observations:

Less likely to return attention if :
* I'm in a high traffic area
* They are on their way somewhere or with someone
* I am dressed a bit scruffily (work clothes)

More likely to return attention if :
* We have something in common
* Walking off the beaten path, say a bike track
* Obviously leisure walking
* I am dressed well

Pretty much guaranteed to return a smile if
* I am walking my dog
* I am bushwalking and encounter someone
* It is someone I see walking often

Walking to work takes me along some cycle tracks between suburban streets. Once I'm off the street the rules change and everybody at least nods and smiles.

One fine summer day I was walking along one of the bike tracks, feeling a bit tired and down. I smiled at an attractive woman in a nice dress, and she gave me what I can only describe as a million dollar smile.

It wasn't a sexual thing, it was just very beautiful, and it cheered me up then (and still kind of does). That last bit is not entirely relevant but I wanted to share it.
posted by tomble at 6:32 PM on October 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Just in case I've left anyone (as I seem to have) with the impression that my post reflects a "why aren't you smiling, sweetheart?" sort of sexist sentiment, please let me be clear that:

a) the ladies under discussion are, in my case, mostly old enough to be my mother, if not my grandmother, and I truly cannot imagine that they're worried I'm going to try and pick them up or make some pass or lewd remark. It's possible of course, but I really don't think that's what's going on. Think Mrs. Rachel Lynde, if you're at all familiar with Anne of Green Gables; that's who often comes to my mind.

b) I'm not saying 'I want all women to acknowledge me', or any variation thereof. I wrote this post as a way of saying, 'hey, I've noticed this thing, and it seems weird to me, and I'm wondering if anyone has any insights into why this thing may be happening'. And I think this thread has generated some interesting discussion into that subject, and I think I have a lot more insight into why this may be.

Having said all that, I read Miko's description of where she lives and thought that sounded a lot like where I live now. Here, some men or other are usually out in the street downtown, and I have no doubt that, were some situation to occur in which a woman were being harassed, one or more of them would readily step in and intercede. It is a fairly close, and very caring, community, and has a very pedestrian-friendly feel. Even a weekend market, with local produce; that sort of vibe.

I suspect that many of the women commenting here are living in larger cities; indeed, several said as much. I've lived in a big city too, and I understand perfectly why you wouldn't want to greet everybody you walk past there; when I lived in Toronto, I didn't generally do that either. If you did, as chunking express related, they'd likely ignore you and think you were weird. Because you're out of step with the norm.

But, in this small town, what these older women do seems out of step to me, hence my post. As I said, here men will always greet you with at a nod at the least (what I've come to think of as the 'I'm not going to kill you, buddy' nod), and women in their 20s or 30s (I'm in my mid-30s) will usually say hi or smile or at least give you a once over to let you know they've seen you and aren't going to walk into you.

What I'm talking about is just a total non-reaction, as though I were not there at all, or were perhaps too awful to view directly. Sometimes, when I have said "good morning" to these ladies on my way to work, they have looked startled, as though I were cruelly breaking this premise that we weren't really on the same sidewalk.

If it were a city, I shouldn't wonder. But, in a scenario such as Miko describes, it seems odd to me. It may just be that I didn't grow up there, and they don't know me, and they're simply not comfortable even sharing a simple greeting. And that's perfectly OK by me if it's so, it's just a shame.
posted by stinkycheese at 9:18 PM on October 17, 2007

Sydney women don't acknowledge you all that often when out walking. Big city thing, I guess. Your footwear, on the other hand, is apparently of immense interest.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:03 PM on October 17, 2007

More insight:

Well, I'm a girl, and I just want to tell you guys, (for example MrMoonPie), that your height doesn't make a difference, your appearance doesn't matter, and it has nothing to do with you being a male. Unless I am in a particularly good mood, I avert my eyes immediately when I notice someone (male or female) in front of me on the path. You can't just stare at someone until they walk past you; it's awkward. So I wouldn't notice if somebody on the street looked "threatening", or even super-attractive.

People just avert their eyes. It's got nothing to do with you. My boyfriend says he walks to the other side of the street to avoid the whole "where do I direct my gaze?" scenario. Personally, I don't enjoy walking places, so I don't breathe in the "experience" and appreciate my surroundings.

Once I avert my eyes, sometimes I become self conscious that it's really obvious, which may make me appear "intimidated" or scared of the person walking past. So if women (or men) won't look at you, and seem nervous, I doubt it has anything to do with you.

Also, please note: some people just DO NOT want to leave themselves open to interactions with strangers when they leave the house. Often, I'll walk to the store with messy hair or no makeup etc, and a "couldn't be bothered" mood to match. Quite often, someone will smile or say hello, and I will be so caught off-guard that I will respond really meekly or even unpleasantly. Afterwards, I generally curse myself for that, because the friendliness from the stranger lifts my mood a bit :) Just a pity I couldn't show them that.
posted by mjao at 10:26 PM on October 17, 2007

it's a lovely day outside, so i thought i'd leave the office for a minute to take a bit of a stroll & check my po box in the process.

there weren't too many people around, but a cute, well-dressed young woman was walking towards me, so i thought i'd do some empirical testing - holding not quite a gaze, but a steady 'look', averting eyes from time to time.

woman: glances, averts eyes, glances, averts eyes, glances again, averts eyes, glances once more, takes a look at my shoes as we pass.

strange, strange creatures, these women.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:00 PM on October 17, 2007

As a fairly large male, I don't expect greetings from strangers, and only tender them if they look at me, or in reply to a greeting. I worked with a lot of rape survivors in college though, and I guess I have a different perspective on what is considered threatening.

That said, if it's primarily older women delivering the cut, it could be related to your facial hair, clothes, or a generational change in the way strangers are greeted.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:43 AM on October 18, 2007

I go out of my way to try and smile when I'm walking around town. Females return the smile about the same as males, maybe slightly less, but are far below the rate of males in acknowledging my presence - in terms of making eye contact at least.

Personally, I feel it to be rude, but I'm used to it. I'm not an intimidating guy, or unattractive, and I usually am walking during daylight hours in a regularly traveled street, and as I said earlier I go out of my way to smile at strangers. So much so I seem to get approached for directions more than anyone else I know while walking around. Once I got stopped 3 times in one week, and for a period I was averaging 1.5 times a week.

My armchair analysis would be it's something to do with confrontation, and that most females tend to shut themselves off to male contact from strangers when walking around - returning a smile risks personal contact, shock horror.

I remember once I was walking around, and saw a woman who I considered to be beautiful. Not in a typical kind of way, but something about her caught my eye. Understandably, I was caught off guard and found myself looking into her eyes quite intently without really noticing how obvious I was being. To my surprise, she smiled and returned the gesture, but I was so unaccustomed to even being acknowledge by females when walking around that I didn't follow it up with so much as a "hi"

I mean, this is all anecdotal. I'd be interested to hear what a girl would say about it - do they get the "cold shoulder" from female strangers to a lesser extent than we do?
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 4:53 AM on October 18, 2007

nah, not the cold shoulder. more the looking-up-and-down, accompanied by a subtle raised eyebrow that says "you chose *that* handbag to go with that outfit??!??!?"
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:23 AM on October 18, 2007

For some possible responses to street harassment:

The F Files (some NSFW images)

NYC Street Harassment Project, New Page,Old Page

Hope your town warms up to you, stinkycheese. But if it's not your piercings, facial hair, mode of dress, or some other out-of-the-usual factor, you might have to chalk it up to the fact that some places are just tight-assed (see Connecticut) and there may not be much you can do.
posted by Miko at 6:37 AM on October 18, 2007

stinkycheese, it does sound like what you're talking about is generational, to some extent. But I would strongly challenge the idea that older women somehow don't get harassed -- there's this idea out there that only attractive young well-dressed women get hit on by strangers, and it is so not the case. Because the harassment is not, for the most part, just some nice guy trying to start a conversation (I wouldn't even generally call that harassment); much more often, it's a power display of a man saying, "I could do anything I wanted to you, bitch, and you couldn't do anything about it." In such cases, less-powerful looking women are much more likely to be harassed.

Really, the attention I get when I'm dressed up and look nice is generally fairly flattering and polite. The catcalls and vulgarity I get hurled at me from cars when I'm dressed in sweats with unwashed hair and no make-up is what worries me, and what makes me leery about all attention.

(That said, I actually am one of the people who smile at others on the street, for the most part. But I'm doing it less the older I get, because I'm just less willing to risk confrontations that ruin my whole my day anymore.)
posted by occhiblu at 7:39 AM on October 18, 2007

My armchair analysis would be it's something to do with confrontation, and that most females tend to shut themselves off to male contact from strangers when walking around - returning a smile risks personal contact, shock horror.


I mean, this is all anecdotal. I'd be interested to hear what a girl would say about it - do they get the "cold shoulder" from female strangers to a lesser extent than we do?

Did you actually read any of the comments in this post? Women in this thread have been explaining as politely as we can why we don't interact with men on the street. Thanks for reducing it to us being being cranky.

Stinkycheese, what happens when you're walking around with your wife? And you probably wouldn't want to do this, but it would be an interesting experiment to see what happened to your street-greeting responses if you shaved your sideburns.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 9:16 AM on October 18, 2007

I wouldn't feel as comfortable smiling at people on the street if I didn't also feel equally comfortable saying "Get the fuck away from me," loudly and with conviction, if at any point it seems to be needed. In fact, I think every girl should be taught that skill and encouraged to practice it, beginning at the age of 11 or so.

Fortunately, that degree of boundary definition is only necessary in maybe 1 out of 10,000 cases of passing a person, or so. Sometimes people say sleazeball things, but there's no requirement that I care about that much if there is no actual threat. I've also practiced the non-violent confrontation method a few times with interesting results that made me, at least, feel better (that's the walking directly up to the person, saying something like "What do you think you're doing? I don't like that. Most women don't. It makes you look like an asshole.")

Again, if I lived in an area where the problem was acute, I'd ignore people more. Also true if I lived in an area where I passed hundreds of people on the sidewalks on a twn-minute walk -- just haven't the energy. When you only pass ten people on a ten-minute walk, it's much easier to be sociable.
posted by Miko at 9:32 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

An Ann o' Green Gables granny lady's current street behavior might reflect the sort of training she had when she was young, not the responses she's getting, now. If you have some really memorable learning experiences in youth--it should be abundantly obvious by now that most women do--you might just hang on to those lessons a long time. Is howcome a burnt child avoids the fire bla bla--again kindof obvious with a little tiny bit of thought. On the other hand, maybe it's a snob thing and you just look too scruffed out for them to deign to notice you or maybe the small-town gossip theory is right. Either way, I say it's early socialization and not your fault (unless you're staring for too long to try to get a response out of them in which case quit it) and you oughtn't to worry about it much.

I think I may have thought of something useful to say: when you're out on the street and there's a woman clearly sussing you out to see whether you're a swine, smile nicely and deliver a formal greeting. Don't say "hi" or "hey," say, "Good Evening," nod briskly, smile, and then look away at the sky or at your watch--don't look like you're waiting for a response. This is good strategy because "Hey" and "Hi" plus expectant, smiley stare looks suspicious--it could easily segue into swinery. But "Good evening" isn't usually followed up by "Howdja like a taste o' my yumyum python, baaaaaaaaaaabeeeeeee aw yeah do fries come widdat shake? WOOOOOOO, yap, yarp, pelvic thrust, rollonthegroundandgibber." It's just not a natural progression.

Also despite everything I said I concur with everyone who thinks that it's best to look at one another and smile and nod and all that when we pass on the street. This stylized staring off in opposite directions like we're in separate species is insane, and smiling at people on your way to work makes the walk faster and funner and brightens your whole day. It's just if they're not smiling back, you got to shake it off. Keep smiling pleasantly at the aged ladies and they'll maybe come around eventually. Meanwhile don't blame them even if they're in some dumb NOCD mindstate. Whatareyougonnado, it's the way they was raised.
posted by Don Pepino at 9:54 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

Well, I'm a girl, and I just want to tell you guys, (for example MrMoonPie), that your height doesn't make a difference, your appearance doesn't matter, and it has nothing to do with you being a male. * * *
People just avert their eyes. It's got nothing to do with you.

Presumably this is meant to be qualified by something like "for me, at least." I have heard anecdotal evidence to the contrary, some from scary looking guys who may be misreading the responses, and some from women who may be misunderstanding their own behavior, but I doubt there's one explanation.

Were I you, I would trend somewhere between "It's got nothing to do with you at all, even your dudeness" and "consider shaving your sideburns for the prospect of an additional sidelong smile."
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 10:11 AM on October 18, 2007

My armchair analysis would be it's something to do with confrontation

Hee. Of COURSE it has something to do with confrontation! Have you read any comments by women in this thread?

Let me describe a few things that have happened to me as a result of returning hellos.

1. Me, walking down the street in a city. Passing Guy (going in opposite direction) says hi, I say hi back, non-committally, with studied indifference. A minute later and don't you just know, there he is - he turns around and starts walking with me, begging and pleading with me to look down at his crotch. Well, fuck me for saying hello...this is what I get. He follows me for blocks. I duck into a bookstore in hopes of losing him. He follows me around bookstore for half an hour. Finally I have to go into the bathroom and wait there until he loses interest. Because I said one word, "hi", I had to spend/waste half an hour in the ladies' room and half an hour in a bookstore.

2. Me, walking down the street in a quiet, rural neighborhood, after dark. Teenager across the street going in opposite direction says hi, I say hi back. He says "oh, a friendly one" and immediately crosses the street to where I am. I think...oh damn. He pushes me and knocks me to the ground and tries to get on top of me. It's very apparent that he's high as fuck, so I just knee him and punch him in the face and push him off of me and run away.

3. Me, walking down the street in a city. Much older, nicely-dressed, unthreatening-looking gentleman says hello. I say hi back (you would think I'd have learned by now eh?). He turns and walks with me, asking for several blocks if I've ever thought of modeling, and asking if he could take some nude photos of me. He was a real pest and would not leave me alone. Again, I had to duck into a building to get away.

4. Me, sitting on the public steps in front of a museum in a city. Guy walking by, says hi, I say hi back. He sits down next to me and asks if I want to fuck. I say no (it's a surprise, right?) and then he berates me for being a bitch, until I get up and away, at which point he follows me, joined by a friend. Both of them trail me for blocks while cursing at me and calling me a snob and a bitch and telling me that I'm too ugly anyway, and they didn't really want to fuck me.

That's only the tip of the iceburg. This kind of thing, versions of which happen to women every single day is why some women and girls don't say hi, and don't make eye contact. I am not scared walking down the street, and I am not intimidated. What I am is weary. And I don't want to be bothered. It's not worth what *might* happen for me to return your pleasantry. Yeah, the assholes, the horn dogs and the creeps have ruined it for the rest of you/us. I'm sorry it has to be this way, at least for me. Such is life.
posted by iconomy at 10:27 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

I guess we can only say that different women handle this diferently.

Though I've got such incidents in my background too, I haven't shut down all street interaction because of it - I value the civility and community impact of neighborliness too much to penalize all men for the very few weirdos.

I also handle interactions like this relying on habits picked up by being raised by one tough mother of a mom and some college self-defense classes for rape-prevention groups. I believe very much in projecting confidence and awareness and knowing what's going on around me. I deal with the extra-creepy things in a planned way that maybe seems uncomfortable or unconventional for others.

For instance, I'm more likely to have a direct confrontation very soon if I think anything at all is amiss - I don't ignore and hope a creep will go away for too long at all and I'm loud about the problem. For instance, with a guy following me, I'd be likely (assuming it was daylight, there were businesses nearby, etc) to turn around and face him and say very loudly "Stop following me. Go away." If he didn't, I'd head into that bookstore (or wherever the very nearest open business was), head up to the counter staff, point at him, and say loudly "I don't know this man, and he has followed me for two blocks asking me to look at his crotch. Please call the police right now."

Of course reactions have to differ based on your surroundings, time of day, and all that, but the loud direct response is something that's always part of my personal safety plan. I've been taught in self-defense classes that the first thing you need to do in a creepy situation is get attention, and plenty of it, in whatever way you need to. Creeps don't like a lot of public attention.

There are a few "Street Safety" sites that go over the kinds of seld-defense basics we used to learn during Take Back the Night events at college. Here are a few. I particularly like this as an example of what I'm talking about:
Taking vocal action

In the event of an attack or a potential attack, Anderson, who coordinates self-defense instruction through Chimera — a part of RCC — said nonverbal and verbal messages are the most effective methods.

Anderson said a large portion of their introductory course focuses on getting past socializations about being nice and not hurting feelings.

“We are taught to not hurt anybody’s feelings and not to be rude,” Anderson said. “Like at a bus stop where someone is standing too close, you should say, ‘You’re making me uncomfortable,’ but that’s really hard to do, that’s really transgressive.”

According to Anderson, the most powerful tool is the word “No” used forcefully, instead of high pitched screaming.

“If you yell, ‘No! Go away, Call the police,’ that’s the information you need — it increases the likelihood that someone will get you assistance,” she said. “They want you to scream and be scared; they don’t want you to stand assertively yelling at them.”
The way I feel is this. As a woman and a feminist, it makes me deeply angry that anyone thinks they can use their attempts at sexual intimidation to control my freedom of movement, and my complicity in that allows the creeps to feel more power and take more opportunity to do the same. There are things I need to do and places I want to go, and within my own good judgement, I'm going to continue to live my life. That necessitates having strategies for dealing with untoward situations, so I don't live in the expectation that nothing will ever happen to me, but neither do I live in the expectation that only bad things will happen to me. Given that women are going to be targets of harassment no matter what they do, it makes sense to me that I should live my life as I want, and when I become a target of harassment, handle it in a way that preserves my safety, dignity, and worldview to my best possible ability.
posted by Miko at 11:05 AM on October 18, 2007 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: DonPepimo: smile nicely and deliver a formal greeting.

I agree this is a good idea, and this is how I'd usually greet anyone over a certain age, say 40 or 50 or so. I'm formal at work with the public, and I just find it works best with older people in general. They appreciate the manners and the respect that comes with some conversational formality.

thehmsbeagle: Stinkycheese, what happens when you're walking around with your wife?

People are friendlier and more likely to stop and talk, certainly. My wife is very outgoing and talkative, and active in the community as well, and my kids (who would usually be with us also if we were together) are very adorable. So sure, people are friendlier, yes. would be an interesting experiment to see what happened to your street-greeting responses if you shaved your sideburns.

Cut down my freak flag? No way jose.
posted by stinkycheese at 11:43 AM on October 18, 2007

Response by poster: DonPepino, sorry.
posted by stinkycheese at 11:44 AM on October 18, 2007

It's possible to avoid much crap by being confrontational. It's possible to avoid much crap by being lowkey and by not responding. The success of any strategy has a lot to do with the person it's practiced upon, which is to say, LUCK. I'd pick the Miko response strategy every time if it were possible, because even if I had the bad luck to get killed, I bet it feels great. The problem for me is that my autonomic response to everything in the world is flight, not fight. Fear always comes before rage and it is more immediately galvanizing. I usually find that my body has made the decision for me before I've had time to think about it. Luckily, I don't need to feel like a part-time feminist because of this. Neither nature nor Glorida Steinem has yet awarded fight the definitive win over its alternative.

Nobody who gets harrassed ought to consider that it happened because they were too loud or because they were not loud enough. Women get harrassed because women are not full citizens. It is a giant weeping MRSA sore blighting many a happy stroll through life. Most of society has tacitly agreed to ignore it because dealing with it would mean inconveniencing the parties in power who if they're not active participants in the hazing are passive beneficiaries of it in ways they don't always like to see. Most would rather sit back and thumbtwiddle and not think too hard about it and say, "What the...? Why on earth does that lady have her back up?" and be mildly discomfited than pony up dough/respeck/jobs/power/yadda and make the gigantic sacrifices they'd have to make to give everybody an equal right to the sidewalk. If I had a doubleplus right to the sidewalk, I wouldn't give it up willingly, either. I wouldn't like to think of myself as hogging the sidewalk, but let's quit mollycoddling ourselves, here--would all of us happily blithely move to the 3rd world today to quit hogging whateveritis, 90% of the corn syrup and oil and sex toys? No. So here we are and there they are, cornsyrupless, sex toy free, walking everywhere.

Meanwhile, teaching 11-year-old girls to yell get the fuck away from me is great. Very empowering. But it's like teaching 11-year-old girls about birth control while continuing to raise 11-year-old boys as future wolves. Tell your six-years-older-than-you boyfriend to wear a condom and you will not become an embarrassing pregnant teen statistic. Eat broccoli and have a good attitude and you will not get cancer. Have a car and drive yourself out of New Orleans before the 2-foot levy we built washes out and you will not drown.

Systemic problems need solutions that treat the system.

While waiting for that and my jetpack, I think I'll work on ramping up the fight response--it sounds like way more fun than my current default.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:54 AM on October 18, 2007 [3 favorites]

I've noticed the same kinds of behavior from women on the street almost everywhere. I think it's sad, but I understand why it happens, and I am used to it.

The really weird thing for me is that here in the DC metro area, it seems like everyone is does this. And not just on the street, either. There are a bunch of different agencies in this building, and lots of contractors. And almost every stranger I look at, nod to, say "hey" to in the elevator, hallway or stairwell gives me this flat-eyed, blank-faced stare.

I really need to move back to someplace nicer.
posted by Irontom at 12:16 PM on October 18, 2007

Also, Miko is officially now my Metafilter heroine.

I hope my wife and I can raise/teach our daughter to be that self-confident out in the world.
posted by Irontom at 12:24 PM on October 18, 2007

I totally agree about the systemic problems, Don Pepino. Absolutely, and about not focusing on girls' behavior to the exclusion of boys. But until we get to the mountaintop, we'll all still need skills to deal with the imperfect world we have. The good news is that it's very, very rare that those skills need to be used.

And thanks, Irontom. I always feel sad when I see friends overprotecting their daughters, rather than being honest with their daughters about what they're likely to confront and giving them some tools to use in those situations. To me, it's akin to recommending abstinence, but providing no information about how to handle the risks of if at some point you find yourself not being abstinent.
posted by Miko at 1:53 PM on October 18, 2007

I know, wild: I think we agree! My only quibble is that it's not v.v. rarely that we need those skills: experience seems to vary widely (with geography? demographics?) but several of us here have reported that it is not rarely but frequently that we find ourselves called upon to shut down a clown. Other than that, I think you and I are pretty much of the same mind, and furthermore I read about your strategies with great glee and will implement them in the unfortunate event that I get the opportunity.

Is there a page on Metafilter where we propose doctoral dissertation topics? If a comprehensive study of street harrassment trends and what's behind these maybe-regional maybe-something-else differences we're reporting hasn't already been done it should be: I would love to read the book.
posted by Don Pepino at 2:37 PM on October 18, 2007

I think it's extremely regional. It's very, very rare for me these days because of where I live, but I could pick up and move back to my old neighborhood and have it be a daily problem again. Life experience leads me to believe this is highly localized.
posted by Miko at 2:38 PM on October 18, 2007

Maggie Estep's song "Hey Baby, Yo Baby".
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:37 PM on October 18, 2007

Last night I was reading a feminist "consciousness raising" book from 1972. The issue of men harrassing women on the street was briefly mentioned. I've noticed it often mentioned in writing from the seventies, since I have only once had a comment shouted at me on the street (in the mid-eighties) I always thought the problem had largely disappeared. It was enlightening to see that is is still a problem for many women outside of my area. (An informal poll of women I have taken over the past couple of days confirms that is very rare behaviour in my area). I wonder if these older women you see on the street were harrassed twenty or thirty years ago and and have modified their behaviour ever since because of it? Also, like Miko, I feel comfortable being friendly to everyone because I know I can quite quickly turn UN-friendly in the face of harrassment and feel comfortable making a public spectacle of myself. They may have the dicks but I have the balls. Many older women have been socialised to not draw attention to themselves or shout in public, and may not feel they can be as strong as a man? Interesting thread.
posted by saucysault at 8:36 AM on October 19, 2007

First of all, congratulations to you people who never get harrassed. Okay? You are awesome, awesome people.

I never get harrassed, now, either, and I live in the same town where I used to get constant chimpanzee shitflinging. It's probably because I am awesome, now, as is everything in my little world.

The chances are laughably small that that growing general, post-eighties, Nth-wave feminist, personal and societal awesomeness we've noted does not account for the change, but just to waste more time, I'll list some possible other reasons.

My lifestyle is different now. I still do a lot of walking, but my routes are more "parklike jogging trail" than busy street.

I'm two decades older.

There's been a subtle shift toward the forbidding in my general mien.

There's been a cultural shift and harrassment no longer is prevalent in my region or North America generally.

A combo.

Something else I haven't thought of.

The irritating thing is that none of us has any idea what's going on, much less why it's going on. That's why it would be cool if somebody did a study. With a sample size. And some uniform standards for measuring. And controls. And data other than anecdotes. Because all our individual experiences do not add up to a plate of beans.
posted by Don Pepino at 10:56 AM on October 19, 2007

Actually, Don Pepino, if I (nor anyone I know) get harrassed in my area it is not because I am awesome. It is because the men in my community are awesome and do not think harrassing random women on the street is civilised behaviour. One of the things I really like about askme is the personal anecdotes, even if they are not an official study.
posted by saucysault at 12:35 PM on October 19, 2007

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