Thursday, July 18, 2013

How to not catcall

So, it's high summer in Seattle again. And same as happens every summer, Seattlites are crawling out in droves. Sunny sidewalks and fair-weather festivals are awash with fancifully dressed humans soaking up their much needed vitamin D. Among the bustle of ice cream trucks, casual conversations are sprouting like wildfire. Sun-drunk, strangers are talking to strangers.

As awesome as summer is, not every encounter with a stranger is sunny. Sometimes it's downright unpleasant. Because catcalls.

There's many types of catcalls but the one thing they all share is their demand for the attention/response of another rather than laying ground for honest equitable conversation. Catcallers seek to illicit a reaction/response to justify the harasser's sense of importance. When people say “insecurity is a turn off” this is what they mean. Using the attentions/reactions of others to justify your own importance is creepy and disrespectful. Don't do it!

The difference between a catcall and a friendly respectful approach is more than semantic (although paying attention to content doesn't hurt). The words used to approach someone are often less important than the intuitively communicated expectations behind them.

Example 1: Just yesterday a man passing me on the sidewalk said “I'm sorry if I'm bothering you but you are a very beautiful woman.” While it might sounds like it was the “I'm sorry if I'm bothering you” that made his approach unthreatening (I've had harassers fake apologize for bothering me very often), my ease at his approach had more to do with his posture and tone of voice. He shrank his body down some, pulled his arms back and shoulders up, and maintained as wide a distance between us as the sidewalk would allow. His voice, while not a whisper, was at a volume only I could hear. Because of these and other more subtle factors of gesture and expression it became clear to me that he expected no reaction or engagement from me.

The message I got from his approach went something like this in my head: “If you have the want/energy to listen to me I'd like to share my attention/words/presence with you.”

And I actually did have some energy (but not a lot of time) to share with him. I told him I liked his t-shirt and we both continued walking in our respective directions.

Example 2: Just days before on the very same street as the previous example another man passing me on the sidewalk approached me with very similar content: “Hey, you look real nice.” But the difference between his tone and posture and those used by the man in the previous example spoke volumes. His voice was loud and his tone what I assumed to be suggestive. He looked directly at my eyes all the while I was in his visual range (hoping to force eye contact). As I passed he also leaned close and thrust his hand into my path (I assume for a handshake).

I walked around his hand and did not respond to his comment, gesture, or attempt at eye contact. As I walked on he shouted after me “What, you can't say hello!?”

The message I got from his approach: “I want your attention. Gimme. You're a jerk if you don't.”

The person in this example felt expectant and I assume even entitled to my attention based on what he shouted after me. He resented me for rejecting his approach, further confirming my read of his body language, expression, and his volume and tone of voice. And for a the few moments we continued to share the block I felt grateful to be outdoors and heading in the opposite direction of this person (folks who consider/attempt approaching strangers in captive environments like elevators or buses TAKE NOTE! The thing I felt grateful for was that I could physically get away from this person if he decided to continue seeking my attention).

On some level the approacher in the second example was gaming me for me attention. And I don't play power games with people I don't know.

The crucial difference between these two approaches is that the first approacher, clearly expressed his concern for where my boundaries and potential to interact with him might be through his body language and voice. He approached me with no expressed expectation that he would receive any attention or recognition in return for his offering of attention.

All of this is subtle and nonverbal, but it is not out of bounds for anyone who has practice using social cues to communicate with other humans.

If you're like me you're probably thinking “Okay I see how those two approaches are different but how do I DO that respectful approach thing?”

Much as I'd love to offer an actionable list, I have no specific advice about what words or gestures to use. Every person comes with their own history of experiences and every situation comes with it's own unique context.

In her comic strip Girls With Slingshots Danielle Corsetto offers a pretty solid starting point:

But I'd like to flesh out the why and how of this strategy a little bit more.

As I've explored in previous writings, nobody is entitled to the listening of another person. While I believe this to be personally true (nobody is entitled to my listening) there are many ways we social animals feel pressured or obligated to give others our listening and attention. Human beings compulsions to listen to one another can be an incredibly useful and powerful force. It's how we build, trust, relationships, and collaborative communities. But it is also a force that catcallers, trolls, & hecklers know well and love to exploit by relying on the feeling of obligation to listen/respond to those they approach.

Wanna know how to avoid triggering any feelings of obligation surrounding listening a stranger might have before you approach?

First check your wants. What do you want from this person? Attention? Attraction? Makeouts? To trade outfits? Whatever it is that's cool. Now, hear this: They don't owe you any of that. Recognize those wants. They are a legit part of who you are. File them away as potential points of interaction for later, if and only if this approach gives rise to future interactions wherein this person might want to know you and your wants better.

And finally when you approach a stranger for conversation, approach that interaction with no other expectation than to offer that other person your attention and presence.

Sounds simple right?

But in my experience this approach is scarier and more vulnerable than using any line, joke, or any other shitty social norms for getting attention.

Offering your attention/presence openly and without expectation of reciprocity or recognition is brave and raw and it's exactly what I picture whenever someone talks about “putting yourself out there.”

So yeah, it's hard. But it gets smoother with practice and after a while you may even start to feel proud of being brave enough to “put yourself out there” regardless of whether those you're approaching decide to respond to or recognize your approach.

In the event of a less than ideal response or lack of response from someone you approach try to remember that a stranger's response or lack thereof to your approach probably has little to do with you, the content, or even style of your approach. Their experience and learned contexts (which dictates what they assume about their location, and you, and you words) are going to ring much louder to them than whatever you have to say and however you have to say it. 

It's okay to be confused about why you didn't get a response. But confusion is a normal part of social life and you have to accept that a stranger's experience is something you just can't know without them letting you in. A person who doesn't know you has absolutely no obligation to give you specific feedback on what about your approach (content, style, context) didn't appeal to them. If you're concerned about or want to refine your skills for approaching strangers ask your friends or a counselor/therapist for feedback, not a stranger. 

Many people choose to ignore all strangers who approach them because of repeated instances of harassment. Someone not responding to a stranger's approach does not always mean they assume said stranger is going to harass them.

Example 3: Last week I was worried, running late and without coffee to an early doctor's appointment I was mentally prepping myself for (I hate the going to the doctor). A man passed me and said “I really like your style.” Even though I was unthreatened by the words, body language, and tone of his approach I said nothing and continued on because I did not have energy to open a conversation or even to thank him for the compliment I richly enjoyed.

Final notes and a privilege check: There are many complicated often prejudicial factors that lead folks to engage or decide not to engage with strangers. I recognize these complications but chose not to address them in this piece. If you wanna discuss that with me the comments are a great place! The examples I cite above are by no means completely representative of my interactions with strangers. While it's certainly not the only thing affecting my interactions, I recognize that in my interactions (with strangers or not) I receive some amount of privilege based on how my appearance matches that of current beauty standards. Also I live in a pretty awesome and friendly neighborhood!