23 April 2010

Men Who Cannot Read Signals from Women

[I have been trying to find an article I read a few years ago that discussed why women are rightly offended/alarmed/disturbed when men ignore blatant indications that the woman is not interested in conversation, etc. I can't find it, and I apologize in advance to the author for broadly restating hir arguments. It was a revelation to me when I read it, and I hope to rediscover it someday.]

This morning I was waiting at the bus stop when a nearby man tried to catch my eye. It was 8:30 a.m., I'd just done a three-week grocery shop on very little coffee, and I was even less interested in socializing than I usually am. And believe me, I'm rarely interested in socializing. So I pointedly looked away, gathered my shopping bags around me, pulled out my phone, and focused on texting Comrade Dziga. I even pulled up the hood of my jacket. Message: not in talking mood.

But of course the guy ended up coming closer to me and hovering in that "I want to talk to you, lady," way. Even more intense focus on the cell phone on my part. He asked me my name, and I waited about a minute before looking up and answering, "um ... [not-totally-accurate-name]." Looked back down at my phone. No inquiries about his name or any indication that I wanted to pursue this conversation. He wanted to know if the nickname I'd given was short for anything. I looked at him with a "seriously? you're an idiot" expression and after a long pause gave the him the obvious fullname associated with the nickname. Back down to the phone, more "I'm ignoring you" body language. He asked me if I lived or worked in the area. Um, no. I just routinely come to distant cities to do grocery shopping! It's great! I reluctantly said that I go to college here, and when he asked which college, I said that I was sorry, but I don't share personal information with strangers.

He was good enough to nicely apologize and walk away. I appreciated that -- and then, of course, I started feeling the old patriarchal guilt trip that I should have been nicer to him! He was actually a respectful guy! But no ... why do I owe anyone conversation just because HE desires to chat me up?

This guy was probably harmless, but as the article I read a few years ago points out, women are rightly concerned when a guy ignores clear signals that she's uninterested in engaging in conversation. The assumption that a woman is obliged to be nice to some random stranger who peppers her with unwanted questions in public is ultimately related to the assumption that a woman owes sex to any man who express interest in / affection for her. This guy probably had no intentions beyond talking with me, but it really bothered me that he was unwilling to read simple signals that scream I am ignoring you.

I found this article that (pretty much) argues that guys are just hopelessly clueless because of their biology: "So ladies trying to brush off a guy at work or the gym may need to be, uh, more direct." No, actually ... when it comes to the guy-trying-to-pick-up-a-stranger-in-the-street. It's not my obligation to go around informing strangers that I'm not interested in flirting. It's the stranger's obligation to leave me the f*ck alone if I'm pointedly ignoring him.

No one owes you conversation, attention, or affirmation, buddy; and if you wouldn't heckle a strange man to give you his name and address, don't do the same to a woman. I rarely see or hear about men being approached by other men in this manner, but it has happened innumerable times to me and my female friends. And no, I'm not trying to destroy romance by forbidding people from trying to pick up dates; if I'd returned his smile and nod with the same, then his initial approach would have been acceptable. And if I'd given him my name and then asked for his, that would indicate that I'm up for further conversation. But I didn't. I looked away when he tried to catch my eye, I tried not to answer his questions and I certainly expressed zero interest in asking him anything or getting to know him in any way. Yet he still continued demanding that I engage in conversation.

It is not sweet, adorable cluelessness that drives this kind of behavior. It's the privileged assumption that women exist to be nice, friendly, and to give men what they want.


  1. It reminds me of some things Gavin de Becker says in the book "The Gift of Fear." Paraphrasing, someone who ignores your 'go away' cues might not be clueless at all. He might be testing you - if he can trample your boundaries, you might be a 'soft' target for various criminal actions. Manipulating through guilt and refusing to hear "no" are two warning signs that you are being tested as a target.

  2. In addition to the Gift of Fear points, this reminds me of Deborah Cameron's The Myth of Mars and Venus. She maintains that men do not "speak a different language" or "misread signals" from women; rather, they choose how to interpret or respond to them, and those choices are based on power/status.

  3. Did you mean this one? http://kateharding.net/2009/10/08/guest-blogger-starling-schrodinger’s-rapist-or-a-guy’s-guide-to-approaching-strange-women-without-being-maced
    I fowarded this to all the women I know - and sadly, many made no response at all. For me however, it was (to borrow your phrase) a revelation.

  4. Thanks! I found it a few weeks later and it was great to read the post -- and the entire comments thread -- again. So helpful and eye-opening.