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.
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.