Smiling at Strangers

Over at Hugo’s blog, Hugo has an excellent post discussing “guilty until proven innocent” – the way that many women, quite sensibly, feel obliged to treat every man they meet as a potential threat. Hugo’s reader “Burning” left an impressive anecdote in the comments, and with her permission I’m reprinting it here.

I highly recommend reading all the comments, by the way; the comments turned into a fascinating discussion of the “c’mon, give me a smile” thing, which I didn’t even know existed until my friend Jenn told me about it several years ago. (Hugo also devoted a follow-up post to the smiling issue.)

Anyway, with her kind permission, here’s Burning’s story.

Just to jump in with another story, I’m a SoCal girl transplanted to Chicago.

In California, I would toss out a nutball grin to just about anyone, and never had any problems with it. So when I got to Chicago I did the same thing. From day to day there was a little bit of randomness – sometimes guys wouldn’t grin back, they’d just say “Hey there,” and look me up and down like a piece of meat. One asked me, “Where do you live?” – that was fun. But none of them followed me, didn’t bug me when I walked away from them, etc.

One Friday evening I was in Blockbuster, renting a movie. Tired from a long day, and just sort of trudging up and down the aisles. I came around a corner, staring dully ahead of me, and realized I’d just looked right at some guy standing outside the Blockbuster window – so I smiled at him then kept on with my dutiful trudge. Got up to the register, and just then he came into the store, walking right up to me. He stuck his hand out – “Hi, I’m Jim,” he said. I shook his hand, “Hi Jim,” I said, thinking for one random moment that maybe his car had run out of gas and he didn’t have a cellphone, or he needed some other thing. Nope.

“Do you like videos?” he said. I’m early twenties but look eighteen. Jim looked late forties, and eager. I turned away from him and looked at the clerk, basically doing all I could to quit signaling any sort of interest, and grunted noncommittally.

“What kind of videos do you like?” he asked, stepping closer. “It varies,” I said.

This wasn’t the answer he was looking for, so we went through a few iterations of that, then he said, “I have A LOT of videos at my house.”

At this point I’ve been signaling for the last few minutes that I don’t want to talk to him. And, part of this is my fault – I should have just explicitly asked him to leave me alone. But I was exhausted, and made the mistake of thinking he’d realize that a woman who wasn’t looking at him, facing him, replying in more than a monosyllable, and was completely expressionless, probably didn’t want to be talking to him.

He was also seriously into my personal space.

I’d just paid for the video and was trying to figure out what to do if he followed me out of the store, when one of the clerks (thank God for her) said, “Hey Jim, c’mere a sec!” She was standing on the other side of the counter, with a stand of snacks between her and him. He made his way past me, over to her, and the path to the door was clear. I headed out, and speed-walked all the way home.

I called the Blockbuster when I got home to thank the clerk who’d helped me. She said, “Oh thank god you called – he noticed you’d left about a second after you were out the door, and ran out of the store after you, cursing. We didn’t know if you’d made it home safe.”

Smiling at strangers happens at that split-second when you glance into their face as you walk by. I didn’t even think before I smiled at that guy – it was instinctive. So, this incident. Rare? Yes. Sticking with me? Oh hell yes. It’s a risk game – I could smile at someone and they’ll smile back, and we’ll have a nice little moment of human contact (30%). Or, I’ll get no response (50%). Or a random sexual come on, hey baby, you wanna come out with me? (15%) Or he’ll come after me into a damn Blockbuster and I will have to spend fifteen minutes doing safety calculations and trying to figure out if there’s a rock or something I can grab, and glancing behind me as I walk home in the dark (5%). But you know what? That 5% does a whole lot to negate the 30% tiny happy feelings, and the 15% of random crap isn’t much fun either.

And when I walk staring straight ahead, expressionless? No one bugs me. No one follows me, and no one thinks I might be their lay for the night. And I get to think about my grocery list, and what I have to do that day, and the books I’m reading, and who I’m going out to lunch with, and there’s very little in the way wondering if I’m going to get followed all the way back to my door, and what somebody might do if they’re a little nutty AND know where I live.

Burning’s story very well illustrates why many women use “guilty until proven innocent” as a rule. The sad thing is, it’s not that unusual – I’ve heard similar (or worse) stories from a couple of female friends.

And again, I recommend reading the whole thread, if you have time.

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22 Responses to Smiling at Strangers

  1. 1
    Hugo says:

    Thanks for the link, Amp. See what good stuff happens when we get away from abortion?

    “Burning”‘s anecdote was powerful, sobering, and utterly unsurprising.

  2. 2
    Dan J says:

    There are also some good responses at Mousewords if you’re in the mood for more.

  3. 3
    rea says:

    Treating men as “gulty until proven innocent” is no more just than treating Arabs that way, or blacks.

  4. 4
    Sheelzebub says:

    Rea, you have completely missed the point.

  5. 5
    Jake Squid says:

    I believe that the whole, “Treating men as guilty until proven innocent,” thing is overstated. Men are being treated with distrust they are not being judged guilty. There is a world of difference. To go with a patented, horrible analogy….. When you see a strange dog you act cautiously. Why? Because it is possible that it is vicious and may bite you. If you’re smart, you will not just rush up to it & try to pet it. I think that is more in line with what people are trying to say with the “guilty…” line. And, honestly, it’s probably a good idea to treat all strangers with a degree of distrust – especially if you are in a vulnerable position. But I’ve blathered enough here.

  6. 6
    Stentor says:

    Nice point, Jake.

  7. 7
    lucia says:

    I concur with Jake. Failing to strike up a friendship is not the same as treating someone as “guilty”. Not smiling is different from hurling epithets.

    Interstingly, in comments on another my recent post “don’t accept cigarettes from strangers”, I mentioned that sometimes, if you simply fail to be mean enough when turning down drinks offerred by strangers, you end up having to ask the management to help you get rid of your new found friend!

  8. 8
    zuzu says:

    I posted a long comment at Hugo’s blog, but I will say I agree with Jake. “Guilt” definitely overstates it.

  9. 9
    Dan J says:

    Yes, guilty is a tremendous overstatement. Trying to be a nice guy doesn’t entitle anyone to anything, not even a “thank you” or any favorable response. It may sting a little not to have your niceness affirmed, but dwelling on it casts serious doubt as to whether you were truly doing it just to be nice or if it was done for some approval or attention. It’s far easier, if you don’t get the expected results, to modify your expectations.

  10. 10
    Amanda says:

    Well, “guilty” was originally used because men who feel put out by women’s “coldness” often feel like they’ve been found “guilty of something. Two things are going on when a man feels that way–women are being cautious and he is expecting more out of strangers than he really has a right to.

  11. 11
    lucia says:

    women are being cautious and he is expecting more out of strangers than he really has a right to

    Or, in some cases, the woman is just not interested, and the man doesn’t quite get the fact that she does, indeed, have a right to be disinterested. Ok, so she’s cool to you. That doesn’t mean she’s a cold person in general!

    And to be fair, men can be aloof too– and women can over react. But, this “cold” accusation does get thrown at women.

  12. 12
    frida says:

    So what’s the alternative to “guilty until proven innocent”? I’m guessing it would be “innocent until proven guilty.” Problem is, you can’t prove he’s guilty until he actually rapes you, or tries, and then it’s kinda too late. I’m fully aware that most men are perfectly nice, respectful guys. But that’s like saying your yard is 99% free of landmines. Sorry, fellas…nothing personal.

    And I agree with lucia about the “cold” accusation–there are guys out there who think that if you won’t sleep with THEM, you’re a frigid bitch. But a guy that displays disinterest…do you ever hear of that being attributed to impotence? [I’m asking an honest question. If it’s happened, I’d like to hear about it. That’s one double standard I’d love to see the end of.]

  13. 13
    Amanda says:

    No, but occasionally you’ll hear a woman who’s been rejected claim that he must be gay. But the universal opinion of such women is that they are desperate.

  14. 14
    rea says:

    “Problem is, you can’t prove he’s guilty until he actually rapes you, or tries, and then it’s kinda too late.”

    Well, Frida, with all due respect, and not to minimize rape or anything, but he ISN’T guilty until he rapes you, or tries.

    If, rather than all this stuff about “guilt,” the point is that people should be careful around strangers, well, point taken. But, that point doesn’t need to be made in loaded terms like “guilt,” and it doesn’t need to be made in sexist terms, either–women can be dangerous, too.

  15. 15
    flea says:

    I have never been accosted by a strange woman and thought I was going to be raped. Has anybody?

  16. 16
    rea says:

    “I have never been accosted by a strange woman and thought I was going to be raped. Has anybody?”

    Not raped, but I was once held up at gunpoint by a woman, and since rape is about violence rather than sex, it seems to me to be a fair equivalent.

  17. 17
    Frida says:

    Good point, rea, using the word guilt DOES make it sound like we’re sitting on the bench, doesn’t it? I considered using different terminology, but “guilty until proven innocent” was what Amp originally used, which is why I went with the metaphor. I’m not trying to imply that I mentally try, convict and hang every man I meet. I don’t. I DO always wonder about men I don’t know [and even the ones I do know, but don’t know well], and I AM cautious. Since that followed along similar lines as Amp’s post, I thought I’d continue his phrasing; it fit well with what I wanted to say. My apologies for any misinterpretation.

  18. 18
    Frida says:

    Maybe a better term would have been “not to be trusted until proven trustworthy.” That’s a smidge wordy, though.

  19. 19
    Sheelzebub says:

    The only people who seemed to be declared guilty are women.

    We are guilty of being stuck-up bitches if we don’t smile on command or reciprocate a man’s advances.
    We are guilty of being man-haters who think all men are rapists if we excersize caution.
    We are guilty of being careless (at best) or asking for it (at worst) if we are raped, assaulted, or killed when we do not excersize this caution.

    You know what? If someone doesn’t smile at me or trust me right off the bat, I’m not going to take it personally. I am not going to lose any freaking sleep over it. People do not owe me a smile, a conversation, or anything else. And frankly, I don’t owe anyone those things either. The fact that women are expected to froth at the mouth in gratitude over some random stranger’s approach is more indicative of entitlement than injustice.

  20. 20
    gus3 says:

    Just stumbling through…

    “Burning”‘s anecdote is why any daughter I raise, will be enrolled in martial arts as soon as she’s old enough. Like, say, 7 or 8.

  21. 21
    mythago says:

    women can be dangerous, too

    Men are more likely to be dangerous.

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