I have been mulling this post over for a couple of days unsure if I should write about it, but I feel I need to. I have been part of some conversations recently about decency, politeness, and safety. I get the impression that many people, (read: men), feel women think about safety too often and make overly harsh judgments about people because of some irrational fear.
This past weekend, I met two friends at an art studio to discuss writing. We are all writers, poets, or artists. A mutual friend gave us the keys to her art studio so we would have a place to meet.
We were in a safe place, a place we’ve been to many times. We let our guard down. The art studio is in a community center. We sat with the door to the studio open and very openly discussed writing, race, politics, how to write inclusive characters that did not sound stilted or stereotypical, hair, how to outline a novel, shoes, family, etc. All things women writers discuss.
An elderly man walked in asking when the computer lab opened. We did not know and told him as much. He came in and asked what we were doing and what kind of place is this?
We told him it was an art studio and we were talking about writing. He then peppered us with a myriad of questions. Where did we go to school, what were we doing, what kind of stuff are we writing, what was our favorite word.
We all started answering his questions at first, and then one girl started to refuse to answer him while trying to be polite. I could tell we were all slowly becoming uncomfortable with him.
We started noticing things.
- He had hospital bands on his arm.
- He sat the whole time with his hand in his pocket.
- He volunteered that he is bi-polar.
- He told us he was a former law enforcement officer.
- He seemed more than a little off.
I wanted him to leave. I could tell the other girls did too. They were feeling the same discomfort I was feeling.
I slowly started packing my stuff. I politely put my laptop in my bag. I quietly wrapped up the charger. I silently put my phone in my purse. I unobtrusively put on my poncho. I was ready to leave. I had to go to work. But I did not want to leave the other two alone with him.
Nonetheless, we politely tried to send him messages by making silent moves that we were leaving that it was now time for him to go.
When we got to the “What’s your favorite word?” question, I told him mine was serendipity because I like the melodic sound of the word. It has a syncopation quality that I enjoy. He asked me what serendipity meant.
I told him it was a fortuitous happenstance. He said he liked the word happenstance. He also liked the word “cloak and dagger”. That was it for me. I was done being polite.
I loudly stood up and said, “I have to go to work.” As soon as I announced I was leaving, the other girls grabbed their stuff and agreed. “Yes, we have to go, too. The studio is closing.”
I could hear the elevator down the hall, which meant there were other people in the building. I made a point to be loud about us shutting the studio down. One of the other girls politely helped him stand up after he announced he needed help. I stood close by keeping an eye on the situation. He was elderly and frail, but none of that would matter if he had a gun. And being former law enforcement, he would know how to use it.
He shuffled out of the studio and walked down the hall to ask other people when the computer lab opened. We felt much better. Still, we took the back stairs out of the building and once safely outside, we shared our mutual fear of the situation.
He could have just been an elderly man who has some mental health problems but is otherwise safe if not just a little creepy. He could have been someone who has the potential to be a danger to himself or others. The truth is we will never really know.
What we do know is that 100% of the women in the room had the same unsafe feeling.
And yet, we were polite.
We did not immediately tell him, “No, you cannot sit here and talk to us. We are having a meeting.”
We did not say, “We will not answer your questions because you are being creepy and that makes us feel unsafe.”
We did not say, “Your presence is making us feel uncomfortable.”
We did not say, “Why are you keeping your hand in your pocket? What do you have there?”
In season 2 of A Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s serial version of Margaret Atwood’s famous novel, the main character, June relates this quote:
This quote is a summary of part of an essay in Atwood’s 1995 collection of Second Words: Selected Critical Prose,
That may seem an extreme view, but women feel this every day in everything they do and everywhere they go. There are a million ways in which women are taught to keep themselves safe every day. We think about safety in every situation.
- Where we go.
- Where we park.
- How we dress.
- Where we live.
- What we eat.
- What we drink.
- Who we date.
- Groups we join.
- The people we date or marry.
The problem is so pervasive that other people get involved to give women options to keep themselves safe:
- There’s nail polish we can wear that if we dip our fingers in a drink we can tell if it has been drugged by men who mean us harm.
- There are signs in the ladies’ rooms in bars with safe words we can give to a bartender if we feel we may be in an unsafe situation we don’t know how to get out of.
- There are shelters for women who are abused.
I could go on. I could provide links and proof to back up everything I said here. I could give statistic after statistic of domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, attacks, or deaths of women at the hands of men. Men they trust. Men they don’t trust. Other people have done a much better job of providing these resources. I encourage you to do some googling.
What I want my readers to take away from this, the salient piece of information I hope you understand, is that women do an internal threat assessment of everyone they meet and in every situation they find themselves.
- Is this parking lot well lit? Can I get back to my car safely?
- This guy I just met…how safe do I feel around him? Could I take him in a confrontation?
- Boss’s behavior is boorish. Might make inappropriate comments. Will he stunt my career if I indicate I won’t put up with his bad behavior?
- Do I feel safe walking through this neighborhood after dark if I rent this apartment?
- If I voice my opinion, will people think I’m a bitch or dismiss me out of hand?
And through all of it, we are trained that we have to take other people’s feelings into consideration, so we are polite.
Here’s what I have to say to that.
STOP BEING POLITE.
You do not need to justify your safety.
- If the guy sitting next to you on the bus is being creepy. Get up and move.
- If you are afraid of the guy you just met, call a friend to meet you.
- If you feel unsafe walking back to your car, ask your friends to walk with you.
- Be loud.
- Be outspoken.
- Share your opinion.
Listen to your gut. Listen to that internal voice telling you that something may be wrong.
I’m not saying to live in fear. I’m not advocating treating people badly. I would never advocate violence. (And the fact that I feel the need to say this, angers me.)
I am advocating women, or anyone really, who finds themselves in a situation where they feel their safety is a concern to listen to that voice, stop being polite, and do what you can to protect yourself.
People will think badly of you whether you’re polite or not.
Apply that to people who expect you to be polite in a situation that makes you feel unsafe. If they expect you to be polite, they should behave better.